Showing posts with label Beat Poetry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Beat Poetry. Show all posts

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Many Allen Ginsbergs - only the middle row is real
In 2008, the late Carolyn Cassady, one-time wife of Neal – Jack Kerouac’s trickster muse – revealed some lingering bitterness in an interview when she remarked that as “far as I'm concerned, the Beat Generation was something made up by the media and Allen Ginsberg." That’s an unfair dig at Ginsberg. When Lawrence Ferlinghetti & Shig Murao were prosecuted for the sale of Howl, Ginsberg – who became a household name from the resulting media coverage – stayed as far away from the trial as he could. It would have been a far better – even obvious – career move for him to have been sat in the front row of the courtroom in support of Ferlinghetti & Murao. Instead, he stayed as far away as he could &, when the chance presented itself, didn’t take a victory lap after the City Lights publisher & his book seller were vindicated, but instead hightailed it to India.
This was well before Ginsberg got to watch fame, alcohol & the media celebrity machine tear Jack Kerouac limb from limb, a painful public process that led to the novelist’s demise first as a writer & then as a person. Indeed, it might not have been until Ginsberg’s stint as Kraj Mahales, the King of the May, in 1965 Czechoslovakia – to which Ginsberg had been deported from Cuba of all places after protesting Castro’s persecution of gays – that the author of Howl seemed fully to appreciate his own potential as a symbolic public figure. But even then other poets rolled their eyes & looked askance. Jack Spicer’s very last poem, written just weeks after Ginsberg expulsion from Czechoslovakia, accuses Ginsberg of not understanding that “people are starving.”
That was 48 years ago &, if anything, the mythos of Ginsberg & radical beat culture as a forerunner of all things liberational has intensified over the past half century. In a five-day span late last fall, I saw three separate motion pictures, either current or very recent, that each included Ginsberg:

  • John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, starring Daniel Radcliffe as the future author of Howl, Jack Huston as Kerouac & Ben Foster as William S. Burroughs, which may still be in some theaters

  • Walter Salles’ On the Road, an attempt to contain Kerouac’s sprawling autobiographical novel as an intelligible film narrative starring Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac), Tom Sturridge (like Radcliffe, a British actor) as Carlo Marx (Ginsberg) & Viggo Mortensen as (as Bull Lee, Burroughs), relatively new to the Netflix & DVD round after a modest theater run

  • Robert McTavish’s documentary, The Line Has Shattered, recounting the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, during which 48 “students” took seminars & participated in readings over three weeks from Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov & Margaret Avison – this film is still rolling out via the art film / festival circuit
Ginsberg’s stature on the curious fulcrum between public intellectual & public anti-intellectual is worth noting. In addition to Radcliffe & Sturridge, Ginsberg has also been portrayed by Roger Massih, Wade Williams, James Franco, Charley Rossman, Hank Azaria, Yehuda Duenyas, David Cross, Tim Hickey, Jon Schwartz, Ron Livingston, Bill Willens, John Turturro, Richard Cotovsky, David Markey, Ron Rifkin, & George Netesky. David Cross, who played Ginsberg in in the Dylan anti-biopic I’m Not There, plays Allen’s father Louis in Kill Your Darlings.¹

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Beat Hotel, which begins a weeklong run at Cinema Village in New York tonight, is a charming, if imperfectly intimate, documentary about an important and too-little-understood chapter in American letters, the convergence of all the major Beat writers save for Jack Kerouac in Paris between 1957 & 1959. It was at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur on the Left Bank that Allen Ginsberg composed Kaddish, Gregory Corso composed Bomb, William Burroughs completed Naked Lunch & Brion Gysin built his Dreamachine & demonstrated the use of cut-ups, a literary collage device that he appears to have stumbled across independently of Bob Cobbing’s earlier work, and which Burroughs would make his signature literary tool. Also living there at the time were Peter Orlovsky, Harold Norse & Ian Sommerville, quite a gathering for a 42-room residence.

Directed by all-around-renaissance man Alan Govenar, the film functions by pulling together interviews with a number of former residents of the hotel, including photographer Harold Chapman, Cyclops Lester, artist Eliot Rudie, designer-musician Peter Golding & Jean-Jacques Lebel, making heavy (and generally felicitous) use of Chapman’s photos & Rudie’s artwork, as well as some klutzy dramatic re-enactments (the only one that is really needed is of Bill Burroughs’ “disappearing” trick), as well as commentary from some of the standard Beat scholars such as Barry Miles & Regina Weinreich.

As a retelling of a familiar story, The Beat Hotel wins points for not belaboring the larger beat narrative & honing in on what its key figures really know, which was & is their experiences sharing the same small establishment run by Madam Rachou & containing this wealth of creative energy. When it ventures much outside this range, its reliability as narrative becomes more questionable – Neal Cassady is twice identified in the photograph linked to his name as Jack Kerouac.

Like so much work around the Beats – Beat scholars must be the ufologists of literary criticism – there are a lot of claims here about the revolutionary nature of these geniuses & very little actual demonstration of that genius, as such. I don’t quarrel with the claims – I think that largely they’re correct, especially with regards to Ginsberg’s best works, Kerouac’s early writing and Burroughs’ sardonic satires – but to continue to see such unsupported major claims when plenty of evidence for it actually exists does make me cringe, not just here, but here also. Other than a few lines of Howl, very little of the work as such is quoted directly, and the most interesting literary discussion as such is Lebel’s depiction of his translation of Howl into French.

But this is quibbling. I just wish that anybody making a doc today on the Beat movement would commit themselves to doing at least as good a job as What Happened to Kerouac? Beat Hotel has its limits, but its virtues are substantial as well. I would especially point to the interviews with Chapman, Rudie, Golding & Lebel for their capacity to give a real feel for what life was like in Paris in the 1950s. The film does an excellent job articulating Brion Gysin’s oft-misunderstood role in Burroughs’ development & the movement in general, and really excels at suggesting not only how Naked Lunch was cobbled together, but also how the period at the hotel marked a turn in Burroughs’ work away from being simply the avuncular guru to the wide-eyed Ginsberg and becoming a major artist in his own right. If the film has a blind spot, it’s in articulating what became of the likes of Sommerville & Sinclair Beiles, and who precisely Madam Rachou was beyond somebody who liked to rent to poets.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Thursday, February 10, 2011

William S. Burroughs
live in Manchester, UK, 1982

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A contest for
the best minds of my generation

Howl, the motion picture by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, a film that I have called both “a wonderful motion picture” and “the best exposition of a poem in a major motion picture,” is now available on DVD & Blue-Ray. You no longer need live within driving distance of a major urban center or a good college art house film scene in order to view it. And view it you should. Franco as the young Ginsberg is fantastic. The DVD also has extra features not previously available and comes with English & French subtitle options.

The film was nominated for a Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Golden Berlin Bear prize at the Berlin Film Festival. Carter Burwell was nominated for film composer of the year award for this and four other films at the World Soundtrack Awards. Howl won the Freedom of Expression Award from the National Board of Review.

I have a copy of the new DVD of Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman’s motion picture Howl, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, for the first three readers of this blog who correctly answer the following two questions:

Who actually spent time in jail when the SFPD “busted” Howl?

Who played this person in the film?

Members of my family, immediate & extended, and regular contributors to this blog are not eligible. Neither are current or former employees of City Lights nor residents of Nowhere Zen, New Jersey. Send your entries via email to Silliman AT gmail DOT com. You must put HOWL CONTEST in the headline.

Here is Ginsberg at Reed College in February, 1956, giving the earliest recorded reading of Howl. This may be the only recording of the poem where an audience has never before actually read the text. Ginsberg was hitch-hiking around the Northwest with Gary Snyder at the time, and reads only the first part of the poem. Interesting to note where (and how nervously) the laughter falls.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

L-R: John Cassady, Scott Lettieri & Jerry Cimino

Jerry Cimino of the Beat Museum
& John Cassady (son of Neal)

discuss Howl*

Howl in theaters now

*If you have trouble playing the recording,
right-click & download
an unedited version here

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I saw the best exposition of a poem in a major motion picture, Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl, coming to art theaters starting on the 24th & also, I believe, available thru various video-on-demand services. Howl is also perhaps the only major motion picture I’ve ever seen that is, in both form & function, the close reading of a text. I have never seen a film based on a work of literature that even remotely approached Howl’s devotion to the words on the paper. If you’re a writer, or care about poetry, you are almost certainly going to love this film. Howl was made for you, with intelligence & more than a little cinematic bravery, and it shows. Howl is a wonderful motion picture.

It is a lot harder, however, to imagine Howl appealing to a broad audience. Virtually every word in this film comes directly from the poem itself – maybe one third of its 90 minutes are given over to a pastiche of different readings that start with the film’s first words, James Franco as Ginsberg reading the title and dedication at the Six Gallery in 1955, then launching into a surprisingly soft [and quite effective] presentation of its famous opening words

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked

or from interviews with Ginsberg or the records of the 1957 obscenity trial in San Francisco’s municipal court, Judge Clayton Horn presiding. This makes for a very curious film dynamic – terrific for opening the poem up, maybe not so well suited to holding the attention of Borat fans. Actors portraying Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassidy, Peter Orlovsky & Lawrence Ferlinghetti are on screen a lot, but not one has a single line in this film. The closest we get is Ginsberg reading Cassidy’s “Dear John” letter explaining that the Adonis of Denver really does want to be straight. Other major figures – the other poets at the Six Gallery or other witnesses in defense of the poem, which included Kenneth Rexroth, Mark Linenthal, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Herbert Blau, Arthur Foff & Vincent McHugh – are missing from the film entirely.

This push-pull between complete erasure & obsessive detailing is a fundamental (albeit strange) dynamic of this project. We learn, for example, which colleges the prosecution witnesses worked at, or hear William Burroughs & Herbert Huncke mentioned by their surnames because they’re in the poem, tho otherwise never present in the picture, Lucien Carr only by his first name for the same reason, yet Shigeyoshi Murau, who was actually arrested & spent the night in jail for selling a copy of the book to the police, is entirely absent. He was the co-defendant. And perhaps most strangely, given that Epstein & Friedman are San Franciscans, or that Ginsberg wrote the poem at Peter Orlovsky’s apartment at 5 Turner Terrace atop Potrero Hill or that the trial was a San Francisco affair, Howl was filmed entirely in New York.

Except for that portion that was done in Thailand. A major component of the film is a series of animations created by a team led by Eric Drooker to illustrate those aspects of the poem that are too abstract (Moloch!) or too literal perhaps in their presentation of matters physical (a child emerging from its mother’s vagina being the most explicit), often as sparkly spirits swoop overhead – these spirits are not so much elements of the poem (unless of course we imagine them as angel-headed hipsters) as they are aspects of forced narrative cohesion. There are some moments where I laughed out loud at animated clichés (my fave is a forest of undulating penises looking ever so much like seaweed), but the animation mostly solves one of the major cinematic challenges of this work – what to look at while listening to a poem.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A talk by Philip Lamantia
with a reading by Bob Kaufman
August 20, 1979

This audio is part of the Other Minds Archive

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Fugs
(Edward Sanders, Steve Taylor, Coby Batty & Scott Petito)
sing Tuli Kupferberg’s Morning, Morning
at Tuli’s memorial,
July 17, 2010, at St. Mark’s Church.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Saturday, June 05, 2010

d.a. levy was a major figure
in the 1960s’ mimeo / small press scene
& a polarizing figure within Cleveland
(the police theory seems to have been
Stop levy, Stop the Sixties)

Matthew Landis responds to
the levy film trailer,
adding a number of other links,
including one to a 57-second video
of levy reading

John Burroughs:
a visit to levy’s grave

levy’s death
came just 18 months & 40 miles
from the massacre at Kent State

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Monday, March 10, 2008

[Warning: There is a “spoiler” below, tho only if you don’t know Gregory Corso’s history or have never read his entry on Wikipedia.]

My very first thought, the instant I began watching Corso: The Last Beat, which opens literally on Mount Parnassus, was to wonder what Michael McClure, Gary Snyder or Lawrence Ferlinghetti must think of that subtitle. Ninety minutes later, sad to see this sweet movie end, its subject, Gregory Corso, now buried literally at the feet of his beloved Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, I realized that just like Kerouac’s tossed-off phrase that got taken over & caricatured by the media, the term Beat in the title here means many different things, only one of which – and perhaps the least important – would be beatnik or even beat poet.

Gustave Reininger’s documentary is many things – a partial history of the Beat Generation, an account of a particular school of poetics, a travelogue of important sites for poetry that ranges from the Acropolis to the Beat Hotel, San Remo Bar & Clinton State Prison, a partial history of the last four years of Gregory Corso’s life, even a mystery story with a remarkable ending – but most importantly it’s the tale of the end of life & watching a man summing up his victories & losses over the course of 70 years. So what I hear in that title now is the suffix that comes after Heart-.

The story is in fact framed by two deaths – that of Allen Ginsberg, right near the film’s start, which has some amazing footage of the entourage surrounding Ginsberg’s bed in his Lower East Side apartment as Allen lay dying from the after effects of a stroke in April 1997, monks proceeding through a death ritual, Patti Smith pacing, Corso literally draping himself over Ginsberg’s body as if to protect him, and that of Corso’s own death at the film’s end, told in a far more circumspect manner, even as we see him carted in a gurney to the hospital & watch family & friends all come to say farewell.

The “core circle of the Beats” in the telling here consists of just four people: Ginsberg, Corso, William Burroughs – who dies just four months after Ginsberg – and Jack Kerouac. Brion Gysin is mentioned, but only in passing. None of the western poets turn up at all. Instead, the gut of this film consists of following Corso as he returns to Europe to see the places that inspired him as a youth: Greece, his ancestral Italy & Paris. In Europe, Corso is not the wasted space cadet living modestly on royalties from a few books that sold in the millions in the 1950s, but a cultural hero to a generation of bright-eyed fawning youngsters amazed to see at last one of the figures who actually lived the romance they envision from the books of the Beats. Where Burroughs (Harvard), Ginsberg (Columbia), Kerouac (Columbia) all came from good educations with all that entails, little Nunzio Corso – Gregory is his confirmation name – got his in the Tombs & especially Clinton State Prison for various acts of petty theft (Corso’s greatest crime appears to have been the theft of a second-hand suit). Clinton was distinguished by the fact that it had, by prison standards, a good library, thanks to previous tenant Lucky Luciano, the original Godfather. The youngest inmate, Nunzio was encouraged in his self-education by the made guys who literally watched the youngster’s back.

The teenager who emerged from prison was a poet well before he first met Allen Ginsberg in a lesbian bar in the Village. Indeed, Corso somehow managed to get Archibald Macleish & others at Harvard to let him audit classes & even had his first book – The Vestal Lady in Brattle – published there before Howl & On the Road changed his publishing life forever (Lady was later incorporated into Gasoline, one of the best-selling books of poetry ever). In the film, Corso is presented reading from the same few canonical poems again & again (including “Sea Chanty,” written at Clinton State) – there is a great reading of “Bomb.” He comes across very much aware of himself not as a new formalist maudit, but as a satirist.

There are any number of genuinely magic moments in this movie, perhaps the first of which is Corso’s visit to Clinton State Prison where he talks to a group of young inmates, every one of them black. You can see their suspicion in their body language as Corso begins talking, trying to figure out why this character, who looks just one step removed from being a street alcoholic pushing 70, should be talking to them. But you can see their body language change as it becomes clear that Corso’s own experiences there parallels their own, and what begins as a painfully awkward moment turns into a real dialog. As he walks away from the institution, Corso has nothing negative to say about prison – it was literally his education, tho I don’t think that was exactly what the state of New York had in mind.

Even more profound is the story of Corso’s childhood. His mother abandoned him on the steps of Catholic Charities and disappeared when he was only an infant. His first poem, the aforementioned “Sea Chanty,” focuses on this primal experience. Corso imagines that she’s returned to her native Italy and is long since dead. His father, clearly a brutal man, farmed the child off to foster care and soon Corso was in & out of trouble with the law. When his father was in prison, Corso spent his days living on the streets & his nights sleeping on rooftops in Manhattan, all at the age of 13. Reininger is circumspect – too much so in fact – about Corso’s own marriages or his own role (or lack thereof) as a father & you don’t even get a sense from the movie that Corso died in Minnesota where he was being taken care of by a daughter.

Instead, we see Corso the son with functionally no parents. When in Italy, Reininger & Corso attempt to track his mother down, to find her grave. But there is no record of her, even tho in Italy all records go back to your birthplace, which should make people easier to find. At different points in the film, this becomes a foregrounded part of the narrative. Eventually, though, Reininger’s various attempts pay off. The trail leads not to some remote Italian village, but to Trenton, New Jersey, and to a small house in which his mother has been living for decades. The film actually captures the son, nearly 70, meeting his mother really for the first time. She is as amazed as he is, and other than insisting that he needs a haircut seems not phased in the slightest to have a Beat poet for a child.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

If there is one single book I’d recommend this year as a present for just about anybody who is at all open to the idea of poetry, that book is The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, edited by Michael Rothenberg, just out in a lush hardback edition from Wesleyan University Press. It’s the book that Philip Whalen has deserved for decades. Indeed, although Whalen only died in 2002, this book could have been published in 1989 with the loss of exactly one three-line poem. The only thing about this book that isn’t just about perfect is that publication date – it would have been great to have had it when Whalen was still alive and able to see it.

If Whalen is a poet who for all purposes stopped writing 14 years before he died, it turns out – something I don’t think I’d quite realized before – he was something of a late starter as well. Outside of a group of early poems collected into a manuscript at Reed College in Oregon, where his close friends included both Gary Snyder (contributing a brief but loving foreword here) & the late Lew Welch, plus a couple of poems in the three years thereafter, Whalen really gets underway in 1955 when he pens a number of poems that would find their way into Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (NAP). In 1955, he’s already 32 years old.

Allen divided his anthology into groups or clusters, the Projectivists, the SF Renaissance, the Beats, the NY School & Everybody Else. Whalen was his choice to lead off this last group &, with 15 pages in the anthology, he’s given more space than John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer & a lot of other people. In fact, in this most turf-conscious of all literary anthologies, it’s easier to note who got more space than Whalen – Olson, Duncan, Ginsberg, O’Hara, Snyder & McClure. Like Snyder, Whalen has often been characterized since then as a member of the Beats. Indeed, his publisher’s web site tries it both ways, calling him “a legendary San Francisco Renaissance and Beat poet.” Neither appellation is really quite accurate – he was never an intimate of the Ginsberg-Kerouac-Corso-Burroughs circle, who really were East Coast tourists when they came to San Francisco &, as the Duncan-less “renaissance” grouping in the NAP makes all too evident, that group was a fiction mostly of Duncan’s imagination.

But it does make sense to read Whalen as one of the key figures of another group – one that Allen really missed (tho enough of it is in his pages that I sometimes wonder why) – that I’ve called variously New Western or Zen Cowboy. These are poets mostly interested in themes local to, specific to, the Western United States, preferring the rural to the urban & with a significant interest in Buddhism – Whalen, Snyder, Joanne Kyger, the poets who appeared in Jim Koller’s Coyote’s Journal, including the likes of Drum Hadley, Bill Deemer & Clifford Burke – all largely fit this orientation, one that to this date half a century later never has been gathered into a single collection. I’ve often wondered why this group never gelled as a unit, even in terms of critical history, while the hoaxed up “San Francisco Renaissance” will get you 50,000 hits on Google.¹

Part of it no doubt has to do with the fact that none of these writers ever sought to make a group, movement or literary tendency of it. The closest might have been Koller, whose magazine was its clearest articulation. But his focus was the magazine (which still functionally exists, tho Koller himself has been in New England for many years now). Contrast that with Olson’s ideas regarding Origin and Black Mountain Review, both of which he saw as useful instruments of his vision, while his vision clearly was a restatement of the possibilities of American poetry. But Whalen, like Snyder & Kyger, was perfectly content to be away from, apart from, any scene whatsoever. His interest in Zen led him into a central role in the San Francisco Zen Center during the days of Richard Baker-roshi. After a scandal caused Baker to resign, Whalen practiced elsewhere, culminating in his work running an AIDS hospice in San Francisco. All the while, he kept writing and publishing until his eyesight began to fail.

In all my years in the Bay Area, I only saw Whalen give two readings, one at the UC Art Museum during the early 1970s with a number of other poets and a solo reading he gave in a crowded bookstore in San Francisco to celebrate the publication of On Bear’s Head, largest collection of his lifetime, brought out by New York trade publisher Harcourt Brace in conjunction with Coyote’s Journal. In both cases, he was so unassuming and humble that you sensed that he really didn’t know just how many people were deeply passionate about his poetry.

I’ve always thought of On Bear’s Head as the definitive book of Whalen’s work – until this Collected, it’s certainly been my favorite. In part, it’s just the size of the volume, but it also has a sprawling nature that feels very accurate to his poetry. I was surprised, therefore, to read this at the end of Michael Rothenberg’s editor’s note:

sometimes Philip Whalen’s “creative process” was simply to allow a publisher or editor to make their organizational choices. For example, when I asked PW why the poems in On Bear’s Head were not organized chronologically, he told me he had no idea, “It just came from the publisher that way.”

So this volume, it turns out, is the first one, really, that gets it completely right – the sprawl, but also an order that one can argue back from or to the poetry itself.²

The sprawl is important because it touches on one of the two aspects of Whalen’s poetry that are unique, and which really account for his importance, not just to his peers in the 1950s, etc., but to poets & readers anywhere. The first is that Whalen has less of a distinction between poem X and poem Y than most any other writer around – it’s something that only Olson in the final volume of Maximus, Blackburn in his Journals, of Eigner in his infinite variations of the same few nouns over & over really approach. Phil Whalen is a master of poetry, but not particularly interested in any mastery of poems. If anything, he is the first relatively pure practitioner of the idea that the definition of the poem is a sitting. Thus in June 1961, he’s already capable of a two-line work:

Caption for a Poem

A home of many-colored gas,
A way from     A S I A, monster. Soul trap.

The first line is an allusion not to Ronald Johnson, whose book The Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses won’t appear for another eight years, but to Johnson’s own source, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Eleonora” where it is the Edenic scene in which the blissful but incestuous relationship between the narrator and his doomed cousin takes place.

The second line is exceptionally complex. Whalen may have gotten his strategies for fragmentation & layering from Pound & his followers – the spacing between letters of A S I A is taken directly from Paul Blackburn. But what does he mean by monster. Soul trap. In Poe’s story, the narrator has promised his dying cousin that he will not abandon her nor their valley, but it ceases to blossom in his eyes and he departs, in turn marrying Ermengarde, only to be told by the voice of his dead cousin that he not worry about breaking the vow,

thou art absolved, for reasons which shall be made known to thee in Heaven, of thy vows unto Eleonora.”

In spite of the assurance, that’s an ominous & indeterminate climax for this tale. Whalen has posed Asia as his “home away from” home, that term all the more powerfully invoked by its absence. Is he likewise trapped by a vow. If so, which way? Bactria is not a misspelling of bacteria (tho I think there are few English speakers who won’t hear that echo) but the northwestern province of Afghanistan, once the border of the Greek empire & home of the young Zarathustra.

The short poems of Phil Whalen often have this concentrated energy, but it’s their positioning amidst the longer pieces, the sprawl, that make you realize just how casually Whalen might insert something like this into a longer sequence not at all about his love/hate relationship with Asia. It was Whalen’s use of linked verse forms that, more than anyone, brought this tradition to America (the person who picked up on this first was Ted Berrigan, but you can see it in Creeley’s Pieces as well).

My favorite of these – for my money, Whalen’s best poem ever, bafflingly left out of Overtime – is “My Songs Induce Prophetic Dreams,” a 20-page linked series that took 15 months to write between late 1963 & winter ’65. It conveniently falls just about at the absolute center of this 860-page tome. It begins by quoting a letter from Artaud to René Gully some 15 years earlier”

“…Books, texts, magazines, are tombs … tombs that eventually will be opened. The duty I say again THE DUTY of the writer, of the poet, is not to go shut himself up as a coward in a text, a book, a magazine from which he will never emerge again but on the contrary to go out to shake up to attack the public spirit … if not of what use is he? And why was he born? … the quest for a speech that any road mender or dolt would have understood ….” (ellipses in the original)

This is, in fact, a radical program, even by the standards of the New Americans. What follows it is an inspired notebook that ranges between Whalen’s obsessive worries – he is the great worrier of his generation – where will he get money? where will he get food? who will love him? he’s growing old? (at the poem’s start, he’s five days short of his fortieth birthday, tho in the first section he displaces this anxiety by focusing instead on the fact that “I shall be 41 years old on 20:x:64.”

Other moments are more optimistic – “awake, I’m not sad any more / I have the chance to steal some food.” He imagines fortunes dropping out of the sky. One section reads simply “Genius”.

Yet just two pages later we find

I have
Friends who
No longer want
To know me

Whalen incorporates his reading, lists of who attended which party, natural phenomena (he’s good on plant life), overheard phrases plucked out for what they reveal about speech. Some lines comically imagine the reader:

This is not what I paid lots of money to hear


        Rare & fleeting Magic!

One result is that you’re never completely sure just how seriously to take any given complaint, situated as they are betwixt the completely serious and the studiously comic:

I have no food, no money; therefore, my friends say, I am foolish and wicked. Are they right? (Who cares?)


“Who cares what banks fail in Yonkers,
Long as you got a kiss that conquers?”
so Ira Gershwin says.


Wisdom. I must change my character. The flavor, shape smell taste color must be different. Whizbang.


Ezra Pound says, “More writers fail from lack of character than from lack of intelligence.”


You always do what you have to do
I’m the one who has to like it – “irregardless,”

                      as people say


Now I am 40, I wish that I had died of my vices, excesses or violence at the age of 29

Elsewhere, he calculates the value of this poem at the 50¢ per line Poetry then paid for verse “if Mr. Rago were to find the poem / “convincing”.

Whalen closes what he calls his “food opera” by noting that

      When I’m hungry, I’m free, and I have chosen freedom at this
price, a very small one to pay.

It’s worth noting that more than a few of the New American poets & their immediate friends were living very close to the edge – Ron Loewinsohn & Richard Brautigan lived for a time in a parked car, Bob Kaufman really was a street person much of his adult life, Neal Cassidy died of exposure next to a railroad track. At the moment when Whalen is writing this, he’s already quite famous, at least by poet standards.

Part of what makes this volume work so well, the chronology laid over the scrawl, is that you can see here exactly how very little formal distance there is between “My Songs Induce Prophetic Dreams” and the next poem, “April Showers Bring Rain?” written just two days later followed by a meditation on fish, I swear, entitled “Love Love Love Again,” penned that same day. Whalen’s loosey-goosey linked meditations, diaristic as they are, are as much an instance of “the words are my life” as the formal sweep of Zukofsky’s “A.” The number of poets you can directly track back to Whalen’s influence are sometimes startling – Snyder & Welch & Kyger, obviously, really all of the Zen Cowboy poets³, Anselm Hollo, Ted Berrigan, Aram Saroyan, Clark Coolidge & you could certainly throw my name in there for good measure.

With the publication over the past two years or so of the collected poems by Joanne Kyger, Ted Berrigan & the second volume of Creeley’s collected, we’re living in a moment of extraordinary access to what may yet prove to be the definitive generation of American poets, not just of the 20th century. They were, after all, the American poets right at the moment when this empire peaked. Wesleyan is soon to bring out a seriously expanded collected Jack Spicer & UC Press finally has the pieces in place to go forward with a collected Robert Duncan. It’s not a perfect view, by any means. But books likes these demonstrate just what is at the core of the New American Poetries in ways that “greatest hits” volumes never could. Nowhere is this more true than in the work of Phil Whalen, still the most underrated poet of his generation.


¹ The New Westerns weren’t the only group that largely disappeared. The Spicer Circle – the real SF grouping of the 1950s – met a similar fate, tho there it is clear that Spicer himself willed it by refusing to have any sort of cordial relations with poets east of the Caldecott Tunnel.

² Given the “in conjunction with Coyote’s Journal,” designation of On Bear’s Head, I wouldn’t be shocked to discover that Koller or another of the editors associated with that mag may have done the major editing work for OBH. The order may not be chronological, but it certainly isn’t bad.

³ You could diagram an integral, not unlike the one Zukofsky did for poetry, for the Zen Cowboy scene with Whalen at one end, Ed Dorn at the other, one all Zen & no cowboy, the other just the reverse. But it’s remarkable what a sweep passes between these two writers.