Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Final Essay (Due December 8th)

For your final essay, you'll respond to one of the following prompts, which will allow you to analyze and synthesize our readings throughout the term through one of several broad frames (mortality, gender, nationality, authority and spirituality). Within each question, you'll be required to decide upon a number of key ideas/concepts/characters (usually three) and then explore each with appropriate complexity, bringing a wide array of textual evidence into play to support your points. Before further discussing the nuts and bolts of your finals, here are the prompts:
  • In Kerouac's famous appearance on The Steve Allen Show, he observes that "I wrote [On the Road] because we're all going to die," while Ginsberg, mourning his father in "Don't Grow Old" muses, "What's to be done about Death? / Nothing, nothing." All of our authors' formative years have been marked by the loss of loved ones (Kerouac's brother and father, Ginsberg's mother, Burroughs' wife, Corso's mother) and they've witnessed the premature deaths of many friends and colleagues (including Neal Cassady, Kerouac himself, Kells Elvins, Louis Ginsberg, Billy Burroughs Jr., Chogyam Trungpa, Elise Cowen, etc.). How do these experiences of loss frame their lives and writing?  How does it motivate them or alter their perspectives on living? Does it make them more willing to avoid complacency or take more risks? How do these attitudes change over time and in what ways do the authors deal with their own mortality?
  • Throughout the quarter, we've lamented both the absence of female authors and lead characters in the various Beat Generation writings we've been reading, along with the general attitudes exhibited towards women, which have ranged from indifference and neglect to outright misogyny. We're addressing this issue now with readings from Joyce Johnson and Hettie Jones, who offer their own stories from the time period, documenting their search for ideological, spiritual, literary and sexual freedom, along with the pitfalls and benefits of living their lives outside of society's expectations for young women. Guided by these lessons, I'd like you to go back into our earlier readings and explore three female characters you find there — some potential candidates: Marylou, Evelyn, Helen Hinkle, Terry, Mardou Fox, Naomi Ginsberg, Joan Vollmer Burroughs, Elise Cowan — comparing their experiences with the first-person testimonies of Johnson and Jones. In what ways are they liberated and how are they degraded by their male partners and society at large?  Who emerges relatively unscathed and who pays the greatest costs?
  • From Sal Paradise's controversial desire to be anything but white in On the Road to the our authors' great appreciation for non-white cultural artifacts (from bebop jazz to Zen Buddhism), a key hallmark the Beat Generation is its transgression of traditional racial boundaries. Explore the complexities of this phenomenon as embodied by our readings throughout the semester. What specific affinities do our authors demonstrate? What risks do they take for the sake of these desires? In what ways do they show a greater empathy for other races than their fellow citizens, and what (well-intentioned) mistakes do they make? How do the Beats address racism in their writings, and in what ways might their own marginalized identities foster a greater understanding? Interracial relationships — from Leo and Mardou in The Subterraneans to Hettie and LeRoi Jones — are particularly revealing and might form a foundation of  your argument. 
  • The Beat Generation is an essentially American literary movement, and many would argue, ultimately a patriotic movement — celebrating the heart and soul of American life and exploring the true breadth and diversity of its populace along with its natural grandeur — even if its authors might not agree wholeheartedly with mainstream American culture or morality. That having been said, it's curious that all of the authors we've read have benefited greatly from time spent outside the United States, and many of our readings have either taken place in international locales (including Mexico, Tangiers, Paris, London, Wales, South America, India, Cuba and even Interzone) or were written there. Analyze the tensions between the foreign and domestic in Beat literature: how are places like Mexico City and Tangiers depicted by the Beats, and why are they so attractive to them? What dangers exist in these places, and what freedoms can be found there that aren't readily available in America? How does the Beats' interaction with these cultures and locales relate to their exploration of America itself and its various counter- and sub-cultures, its ethnic groups, its artistic scenes? Are there places within America where similar freedom might be found? Is the ideal base of operations for the Beats within or outside of America, and why?
  • "Prison is where you promise yourself the right to live," Kerouac observes in On the Road and all of our authors this term have had run-ins with the law — from Kerouac's arrest as an accessory to the David Kammerer murder to Burroughs' accidental shooting of his wife, Ginsberg's charges related to stolen goods that eventually saw him committed to Pilgrim State, Corso's numerous juvenile incarcerations, and Baraka's arrest during the Newark Riots — and partaken in various illegal activities. Explore the Beats attitudes towards authority and criminality as demonstrated in their writings: What are their criticisms of mid-century society's laws and culture of repression? How do their address institutionalized injustice and personal freedom? What are the benefits of living outside of the law and what liabilities and anxieties does that foster? What hypocrisies do they reveal in police, politicians and the military? You're free to respond to this question in a more general fashion or focus exclusively on a single sub-topic such as drugs, free speech/censorship, social injustice, war/pacifism, etc.
  • Spirituality — whether Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism or a more general Humanist practice — is at the heart of the Beat Generation aesthetic, from the early strains of Ginsberg's "Footnote to Howl," where he declares the holiness of everything (in graphic catalogued detail) to the authors' preparation for death. Consider the role of faith and spirituality within this quarter's readings, as both philosophical worldview and personal practice, paying special attention to the ways in which differing religious perspectives are intermingled in the texts. How do the Beats differentiate their faith from that of mainstream America and what critiques of organized religion (and/or the actions committed in its name) do they offer. In what ways do they use their writing as a vehicle to provide readers with practical instruction in faiths other than their own? Finally, in a more general sense, how would you define Beat spirituality?

Your final essays should be a minimum of six (6) pages (and by six pages, I mean that the text of your essay itself makes it to the very bottom of the the page, or better yet onto a 7th), and written in MLA style (including a proper header, parenthetical in-text citations and a works cited list at the end), double-spaced in 12-point Times New Roman, no tricked-out margins, etc. You'll e-mail your papers to me no later than 5:00 PM on Monday, December 8th. Because e-mail is an imperfect delivery medium and the UC system is prone to collapse, take note that I'll reply to each paper received, letting students know that it's arrived safely, so if you don't receive that e-mail, get in touch with me, and should you have any questions or concerns prior to the deadline, don't hesitate to drop me a line.

Also, please don't forget that tardy papers will be docked a full letter grade for every day they're late and that papers that are less than the stated limit of six full pages will automatically receive an F. Finally, I will not permit block quotes for this essay — whittle down your quotations to the essential information and make use of summary and paraphrase when necessary.

While six pages seems like an endlessly long paper, I can assure you that it's not really a lot of space to discuss these topics in great depth, therefore I wholeheartedly encourage you to dispense with any and all filler, including bloated rhetoric and lengthy five-paragraph-style introductions that ultimately say very little while taking up a lot of word count.  Don't hover over the surface of the issues — dive right in and get to the heart of your argument from the start. I also recommend that unless you have compelling reasons to do otherwise, organize your essay around the topics (characters/techniques/etc.) you've chosen to discuss, rather than proceeding chronologically or dealing with each author individually, and also that you write through the source texts themselves, as demonstrated in the "Making Effective Arguments" post I put up at the start of the term. You do not need to do outside research for this assignment, and you should avoid lengthy explications of the authors' biographical details or summaries of the plots of texts outside of what relates directly to the points that you are making. Presume that the person reading your paper has read all of the texts you reference (because he has!). Finally, make sure that you are following the conventions of MLA formatting (which can be found in numerous places on the internet).

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Weeks 12–15: Joyce Johnson and Hettie Jones

Hettie Jones (left) and Joyce Johnson (right) in NYC, circa 1960.
If, throughout the semester, you've lamented the absence of female authors and lead characters in the various Beat Generation writings we've been reading, as well as the general attitudes exhibited towards women, (which have ranged from indifference and neglect to outright misogyny), then we've reached a redemptive point in the term. It's true that the Beat 50s and 60s were very phallocentric times, but in the decades since then many female voices have stepped forward to assert their important place in this time period — not just as wives, girlfriends and enablers, but also as writers. We'll conclude the year by spending a little time with two of them, and in the process, reframe our earlier readings through a new perspective.

Chief among these revisionist historians is Joyce Johnson, whose National Book Critics Circle Award-winning memoir, Minor Characters (1983) is an important document of the Beat Generation's heyday from a female perspective. A close friend of Allen Ginsberg's in New York City, Johnson (née Glassman) was set up with Jack Kerouac on a blind date by the poet, largely because he thought that she'd take good care of him. Only in her early twenties, she did just that for a few years, which coincided with the publication of On the Road and Kerouac's uneasy rise to international fame (or infamy). That's what a key portion of the book is about, however it's a terrible injustice to Johnson to treat her like some mere groupie — while she had famous friends, Minor Characters is far more importantly a story of how a woman might seek (and find) the same sort of ideological, spiritual, literary and sexual freedom that Beats did. Along the way, you'll also meet a few of her closest female friends, including the ill-fated poet Elise Cowan and Hettie Jones, who sought similar achievements, with varying levels of success.

Jones, born Hettie Cohen, grew up in Queens dreaming of a freedom that wasn't possible under her family's restrictive rules. Like many others, the bright and talented young writer escaped to the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, where she was quickly absorbed into the city's literary scene and found a succession of editorial jobs. She also found love, with LeRoi Jones, and their union (as we've already discussed) was not just a romantic one, but also a literary powerhouse, producing the influential journal Yugen and the publishing imprint Totem Books. As I discussed in the Jones/Baraka write-up, the two married at a time when interracial marriages were not only socially revolutionary, but also illegal in many jurisdictions (and at the very, widely least deemed unacceptable — Hettie's family responded by disowning her). Her 1990 memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones reveals the personal transformations that defined her twenties and her delayed evolution into the writer she'd eventually become.

Here's our reading breakdown for our last four holiday-riddled weeks:

Week 12
  • Tuesday, Nov. 11: No Class — Veterans Day
  • Thursday, Nov. 13: Jones chapters 1–9
Week 13
  • Tuesday, Nov. 18: Jones chapters 10–18
  • Thursday, Nov. 20: Jones chapters 19–23; Johnson chapters 1–3
Week 14 
  • Tuesday, Nov. 25: Johnson chapters 4–8
  • Thursday, Nov. 27: No Class — Thanksgiving
Week 15
  • Tuesday, Dec. 2: Johnson chapters 9–15
  • Thursday, Dec. 4: No Class — Prof. in DC

Finally, here are some supplemental materials that might be of interest to you:
  • Joyce Johnson, "Beat Queens: Women in Flux" [link]
  • Hettie Jones, "Babes in Boyland" [link]
          (the two above pieces come from The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats)
  • Nancy Grace interviews Jones and Johnson in Artful Dodge [link]
  • a 2007 interview with Johnson in The Guardian [link]
  • a 2007 Vanity Fair interview with Johnson [link]
  • The New York Times reviews How I Became Hettie Jones [link]
  • Hilton Als writes about "Amiri Baraka's First Family" in The New Yorker [link]
  • a 2011 video interview with Jones for the Mom Egg [link]

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Week 11: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), "Transbluesency"

Our next author, LeRoi Jones, will be the last contemporary Beat writer we'll be reading this term — our final two authors (Joyce Johnson and Hettie Jones) while closely-linked to writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso, didn't write their memoirs of the Beat era until long after the fact — and, for that mater, some question whether Jones is even a Beat writer in the first place.

As Donald Allen's groundbreaking 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry reveals, the Beats were just one of several sub-groups operating within the world of postwar experimental poetics, alongside the New York School, the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance group and the poets operating at North Carolina's Black Mountain College (who later navigated north to NYC after its close). LeRoi Jones, a multifaceted young writer — in addition to the poetry you'll read here, Jones was also an Obie-wining playwright, wrote a novel and short fiction, and also was a much-lauded music critic who penned a highly-influential volume on jazz, Blues People — was living and working in New York at the same time and both close friends with, and publisher of (through Totem Press and the journal Yugen, both of which he ran with his wife, Hettie) of members of all of these groups (Kerouac, Ginsberg and Corso from the Beats, Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch from the New York School, Gary Snyder from the SF poets, and Black Mountain writers including Paul Blackburn, Ed Dorn and Fielding Dawson), however he was never "officially" a member of any. Nonetheless, it's clear from the start of our reading in Transbluesency that the Beats are near and dear to him, and his writing, along with his wife's memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, provides us with a unique perspective on the Beats and their times.

Born into a working class family in Newark, NJ (a city whose identity, both then and now, has been shaped by its large African-American popuation), the young and idealistic Jones studied religion and philosophy at Rutgers, Howard, Columbia and the New School (though he never earned a diploma) and read widely in contemporary literature and the arts. He joined the the Air Force, which gave him broader exposure to the world, but also an early reminder of the price one paid for his individuality, when the gunner sergeant was dishonorably discharged after he was discovered reading Communist writings. He'd eventually settle in New York City, where he'd meet and mingle with the city's young writers, marry his first wife, Hettie (a controversial interracial union in an era when such marriages were not only unrecognized, but also illegal in many states) and begin the publishing ventures mentioned above. Still guided by an intense interest in the political and social (particularly the fledgling civil rights movement), Jones would eventually move away from the friendships and artistic associations that would mark his early years. In 1960, he joined a delegation of artists and writers that traveled to Cuba as a show of solidarity, and as the decade unfolded, he'd find himself drawn into the Black Nationalism movement and the Nation of Islam, eventually (after the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X) going so far as to move to Harlem, leaving his wife and two daughters behind, sever many of his associations with former friends, and change his name to the one on the cover of your book (and the one he went by until his death this January): Amiri Baraka. While his political passions and his association with the Nation of Islam would eventually fade slightly, and he'd express regret for some of his actions, he remained (and remains) a defiant figure in America's literary and cultural scenes, a tireless advocate for a uniquely black aesthetics, and an adventurous and formally inventive writer.

While, like many of our previous authors, Jones/Baraka continued to write beyond the Beat heyday, we'll more narrowly confine our focus to his earlier output, with a few selected later works thrown in. Here's the breakdown for our two classes:

Tuesday, Nov. 4: Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961) and The Dead Lecturer (1964)
  • Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (5)
  • Hymn for Lanie Poo (6)
  • In Memory of Radio (15)
  • Look for You Yesterday, Here You Come Today (17)
  • To a Publisher . . . Cut-out (22)
  • Way Out West (29)
  • The Bridge (31)
  • Symphony Sid (36)
  • The New Sheriff (43)
  • Notes for a Speech (48)
  • As a Possible Lover (53) MP3
  • Balboa, the Entertainer (54)
  • A Contract (For the Destruction and Rebuilding of Paterson (56) MP3
  • A Poem for Neutrals (58)
  • An Agony. As Now (60)
  • A Poem for Willie Best (62)
  • Short Speech to My Friends (72) MP3
  • A Poem for Democrats (77)
  • The Measure of Memory (78)
  • Footnote to a Pretentious Book (80)
  • Rhythm & Blues (I (82)
Thursday, Nov. 6: from The Dead Lecturer (1964), Black Magic (1969), and Hard Facts (1972)
  • Black Dada Nihilismus (97) MP3 / DJ Spooky mix: MP3
  • A Guerrilla Handbook (101)
  • Political Poem (107)
  • A Poem for Speculative Hipsters (110) MP3
  • Three Modes of History and Culture (117) MP3
  • A Poem Some People Will Have to Understand (120) MP3
  • The People Burning (122) MP3
  • The New World (127)
  • Tone Poem (131)
  • Numbers, Letters (136)
  • Red Eye (138)
  • Return of the Native (140)
  • Black Art (142)
  • Poem for HalfWhite College Students (144) MP3
  • American Ecstasy (145)
  • History on Wheels (151)
  • Real Life (155)

And here are a few supplemental resources to help you through our time with Baraka:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Weeks 9–10: Gregory Corso, the Poet's Poet

We're switching gears from prose back to poetry as we move on to the poet who served as D'Artagnan to the Beat Three Musketeers of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs — Gregory Corso. Still, it would do him a horrible disservice to suggest his talents are any less than theirs.  Our readings will be taken from the 1989 collection, Mindfield: New and Selected Poems, sadly the only comprehensive volume of Corso's poetry, even if it neglects his final twelve years of writing.

Corso's childhood was every bit as tough as Neal Cassady's. Abandoned by his mother (or so he thought) not long after his birth, and then abandoned again by his father, who shuttled him in and out of foster homes throughout the first eleven years of his life. While he was a talented student, in spite of these hardships, he soon ran afoul of the law, serving time for several thefts and break-ins throughout his teenage years, ultimately leading to his three-year incarceration in Clinton Correctional Facility from the ages of 16-19. It was here that Corso's life began to change for the better. 

By sheer happenstance, Corso was placed in the cell that had just been vacated by the gangster Charles "Lucky" Luciano, and this had several positive consequences: Luciano had donated an extensive library to the prison so that he could keep up with his reading, and to facilitate this, he also arranged to have a special light installed so that he read into the wee hours of the morning. Protected by the hardened criminals (who saw the teenaged prisoner as a mascot of sorts) he began a long process of self education — reading widely through Greek and Roman classical literature as well as the English canon — and started writing poetry, which became a salvation for him. Not long after his release, he met Allen Ginsberg at a lesbian bar called The Pony Stable and struck up a conversation, becoming fast friends. The rest, as they say, is history!

As you'll recall from Kerouac's depictions of Corso in The Subterraneans it's a bit of an understatement to say that he is a character — both cantankerous and charming, the ex-con and freeloader with a heart of gold who can quote Keats and Shelley from memory. This tension between hyper-modern and clasical and Romantic influences makes Corso a unique voice among the Beats, and it'll be interesting to explore these dichotomies as we work through Mindfield

Here's our reading schedule for Corso:

Thurs., October 23rd: from The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Gasoline
  • Greenwich Village Suicide (3)
  • In the Morgue (4)
  • Sea Chanty (5): MP3
  • The Horse Was Milked (7)
  • Requiem for ‘Bird’ Parker Musician (8)
  • Cambridge First Impressions (15)
  • Mexican Impressions (24)
  • Sun (26)
  • Puma in Chapultepec Zoo (27)
  • Uccello (29)
  • On the Walls of a Dull Furnished Room (30)
  • Italian Extravaganza (30)
  • Birthplace Revisited (31)
  • But I Do Not Need Kindness (32)
  • Don’t Shoot the Warthog (34)
  • I Am 25 (35)
  • Three (36)
  • Hello (37)
  • The Mad Yak (38)
  • This Was My Meal (39)
  • For Miles (40)
  • Last Night I Drove a Car (42): MP3
  • Allen Ginsberg, "Foreword: on Corso’s Virtues" (xi)
  • William S. Burroughs, "Introductory Notes" (xv)
  • David Amram, "Introduction" (xix)

Tues., October 28th: from The Happy Birthday of Death and Long Live Man
  • Notes After Blacking Out (47)
  • Hair (51)
  • Under Peyote (54)
  • I Held a Shelley Manuscript (58)
  • Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway (60)
  • Marriage (62): MP3
  • Bomb (65)
  • She Doesn't Know He Thinks He's God (70)
  • Dream of a Baseball Star (71)
  • Giant Turtle (73)
  • Clown (76)
  • The Sacré-Coeur Café (85)
  • From Another Room (86)
  • Power (87)
  • Army (93)
  • 1959 (97)
  • Happening on a German Train (105)
  • European Thoughts—1959 (106)
  • Friend (108)
  • Writ on the Steps of Puerto Rican Harlem (115)
  • They (117)
  • Danger (118)
  • Second Night in N.Y.C. After 3 Years (119): MP3
  • Writ on the Eve of My 32nd Birthday (120)

Thurs., October 30th: from Elegiac Feelings AmericanHerald of the Autochthonic Spirit, and uncollected poems
    • Elegiac Feelings American (125)
    • America Politica Historia, in Spontaneity (152)
    • God is a Masturbator (156)
    • Columbia U Poesy Reading—1975 (161)
    • I Met This Guy Who Died (169): MP3
    • Earliest Memory (170)
    • How Not to Die (177)
    • Many Have Fallen (182)
    • Getting to the Poem (187)
    • Spirit (190)
    • I Gave Away . . . (191)
    • The Whole Mess . . . Almost (199): MP3
    • Feelings on Getting Older (203)
    • Fire Report - No Alarm (234): MP3
    • Poet Talking to Himself in the Mirror (237)

    Gregory Corso passed away in January of 2001, and thanks to the intervention of his friends, he was buried, as he wished to be, in Rome, beside the grave of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here are a few remembrances:
    • The New York Times obituary [link]
    • Robert Creeley announces Corso's death on the Poetics List [link]
    • The Woodstock Journal's tribute to Corso [link]
    And here are a few supplemental videos:

    Corso reads from "Bomb" at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant

    Corso in Rome, 1989 (part 1)

    Corso in Rome, 1989 (part 2)

    Wednesday, October 1, 2014

    Weeks 8–9: William S. Burroughs, "El Hombre Invisible"

    Moving on from our time with Allen Ginsberg, and after taking a little break for the fall reading days, our next Beat author for weeks 8 and 9 will be William S. Burroughs, and our primary text, Word Virus: the William S. Burroughs Reader (eds. James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg).

    An early mentor to the younger proto-Beats Kerouac, Ginsberg and Lucien Carr — he not only suggested books and authors that were radically different than their readings at Columbia, but also exposed them to the drug and criminal subcultures of New York's seedy underbelly — Burroughs had no real intentions of being a writer, but the his friends' persistent encouragement (Ginsberg's in particular) lead him to give it a try.

    Ivy League-educated, and a world traveler by his mid-1920s, Burroughs who always seemed to find himself in trouble with authority, was drawn to philosophical questions of control and spent much of his career exploring that topic, whether through the guise of addiction, criminality, propaganda, media or deviance — all topics he knew well from first-hand experience — and in particular, his accidental shooting, in 1951, of his wife, Joan Vollmer, brought these issues into the forefront, unleashing "the Ugly Spirit" and charging him to use writing as a medium for his explorations. He wed the sharp analytic eye of a historian or anthropologist to a wildly experimental prose style, creating some of the 20th century's most challenging and innovative texts.

    You'll notice a distinct difference between relatively-straightforward early prose like Junky and the excerpts from Naked Lunch, Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded and The Soft Machine, as well as the handful of excerpts from Interzone, that you'll be reading this week. All of these texts were drawn from a large manuscript Burroughs produced in the aftermath of Vollmer's accidental death, called "The Word Hoard," or simply "WORD" — a vast series of "routines," (the author's term for the short vignettes that fill his work) which he would constantly revise, deconstruct and remix to produce new works. As a result, you'll likely notice a lot of repetitions and overlaps between the excerpts from Naked Lunch and the Nova Trilogy books, since, after all, they come from the same source.

    Burroughs' primary means of reconstructing these texts was the "cut-up method," an experimental cut-and-paste practice devised by the author and Bryon Gysin in the late 1950s, which draws inspiration from, among other things, the Dadaist practice of automatic poetry, as formulated by Tristan Tzara. Here's a brief audio clip of Burroughs describing the origins and methodologies of the cut-up technique. Take a few minutes to listen, and perhaps the work you'll be reading might make more sense:

    It's also worth noting that Burroughs' writing is deeply-rooted in postmodern notions of "meta-fiction' — a practice in which form is almost as important as content. Getting a handle on what Burroughs is saying here is one thing to shoot for, but also pay attention to how he's saying it. He's taking chances with his writing, in terms of subject matter, but also in terms of the writing itself.

    Those of you who're able to make it out to this week's film screening will get a lot of useful background information on Burroughs and his techniques, and thankfully the reader we'll be using also provides some helpful contextualization. Here's a breakdown of our Burroughs readings:

    Tuesday, Oct. 14: Junky and Interzone
    • The Name is Burroughs (15)
    • Personal Magnetism (23)
    • Twilight’s Last Gleamings (24)
    • International Zone (121)
    • Ginsberg Notes (excerpts) (133)
    • from Junky: prologue and selections (47)
    • Ann Douglas, "Punching a Hole in the Big Lie: the Achievement of William S. Burroughs" (xv)

    Thursday, Oct. 16: Naked Lunch and The Nova Trilogy
    • from Naked Lunch (149)
    • Dead on Arrival (184)
    • Case of the Celluloid Kali (187)
    • The Mayan Caper (193)
    • See the Action, B.J.? (202)
    • Operation Rewrite (208)
    • The Invisible Generation (218)
    • Last Words (225)
    • So Pack Your Ermines (231)
    • Shift Coordinate Points (232)
    • Pay Color (240)
    • Clom Friday (243)
    As you make your way through Naked Lunch, keep these words of wisdom from The Simpsons in mind:

    Tuesday, Oct. 21: The Third MindExterminator! and beyond
    • Who is the Third That Walks Beside You (256)
    • The Exterminator (270)
    • The Future of the Novel (272)
    • Notes on These Pages (273)
    • Exterminator! (383)
    • The Discipline of DE (386)
    • From Here to Eternity (394)
    • Seeing Red (396)
    • The "Priest" They Called Him (397)
    • from The Cat Inside (selections) (504)
    You also might want to check out the cut-up films Burroughs made with Antony Balch and Brion Gysin in the 1960s and 70s ("Towers Open Fire" and "The Cut Ups" are a good place to start).

    Unlike Ginsberg, there aren't exact audio tracks to correspond with many of the readings, but I'm listing a few files below to give you a taste of Burroughs' reedy, grim delivery.
    • from "Twilight's Last Gleamings" (2:48): MP3
    • from Naked Lunch (2:12): MP3
    • from Naked Lunch (20:28): MP3
    • from Junky (7:29): MP3
    You can find a great many more recordings on UbuWeb's William S. Burroughs sound page.

    And here are some supplemental readings, followed by a few videos.
    Much like Ginsberg, Burroughs would have close ties to the world of popular music throughout his career — he coined the term "heavy metal," and bands like Steely Dan, the Soft Machine and DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid all took their names from his writing. In later years, he collaborated with a diverse array of artists, from R.E.M. to Sonic Youth to Nirvana. Here's "The 'Priest' They Called Him," with musical accompaniment from Kurt Cobain:

    Burroughs and R.E.M.'s collaborative version of "Star Me Kitten":

    And here's a compendium of Burroughs' scenes in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy:

    Tuesday, September 30, 2014

    Tuesday, October 7th: Allen Ginsberg Day 6 — Cosmopolitan Greetings and Farewells

    There's not much to say and very little to weep for at the end of Ginsberg's life. The most important lesson here is the ability to adapt, to hybridize, to change as the times change — Ginsberg had it, Burroughs had it, even Cassady had it, but unfortunately Kerouac did not, and that's why our last memories of him are as a bitter, bloated drunk, while the rest were lively and engaged until the end.

    All of the themes that we've traced throughout Ginsberg's life continue through his last decade. In particular, I wanted to address his musical interests as being particularly evocative of his ability to grow and change. In last week's readings, we see the hopefulness of the 60s give way to Nixon-era spiritual and political malaise, followed by the youthful rebellion of punk rock, and Reagan's conservative stranglehold in the 80s bringing us to a reemergence of socially-conscious youth in the 1990s. These evolutions reflected in Ginsberg's work, in the ideologies he espoused, and see him happily embraced each new mode, whether that would find him on tour with Bob Dylan or sharing the stage with the Clash. The young Ginsberg who celebrated seeing the Beatles in concert in "Portland Coliseum" would have close ties to the world of popular music until the end of his life, most notably his mid-90s collaboration with Paul McCartney, Lenny Kaye and Philip Glass, "The Ballad of the Skeletons."

    Ginsberg evolved to the very end.  In 1996 Ginsberg took part in a discussion/interview with Beck, published in the Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun with the unfortunate subtitle, "A Beat/Slacker Transgenerational Meeting of Minds." The two had met a year-and-a-half earlier in New York, backstage at the Lollapalooza festival.  He also started talks with MTV about doing an episode of their Unplugged series with musical accompaniment by Bob Dylan, Philip Glass, Paul McCartney, and Patti Smith.  At the same time, Ginsberg acknowledged that the world was quickly moving beyond him. In a 1996 interview with Hotwired (an online web journal related to Wired magazine), he offered his response to seeing the internet for the first time: "Thank God I don't know how to work this!"  

    Diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in early 1997, he greeted this latest transition with great enthusiasm, calling friends to say farewell even as he lamented all of the things he'd never be able to do.  On April 5th, surrounded by friends and family in his modest NYC apartment, he breathed his last.

    Here are our final Ginsberg readings, with audio when available:
    • A Public Poetry (869)
    • Maturity (872)
    • I'm a Prisoner of Allen Ginsberg (882)
    • Prophecy (915)
    • Sphincter (950): MP3
    • Cosmopolitan Greetings (954)
    • Personals Ad (970): MP3
    • May Days 1988 (979)
    • CIA Dope Calypso (996): MP3
    • Numbers in U.S. File Cabinet (Death Waits to be Executed) (982)
    • Return of Kral Majales (984): MP3
    • After the Big Parade (1010): MP3
    • After Lalon (1019): MP3
    • Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Don't Smoke) (1029): MP3
    • Autumn Leaves (1046)
    • New Democracy Wish List (1063)
    • Tuesday Morn (1074)
    • "Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Don't Smoke)"
    • New Stanzas for Amazing Grace (1080): MP3
    • The Ballad of the Skeletons (1091): MP3
    • Richard III (1128)
    • Death and Fame (1129)
    • Dream (1159)
    • Things I'll Not Do (Nostalgias) (1160)
    And here are some supplemental videos:

    Personals Ad

    Put Down Yr. Cigarette Rag (Don't Smoke)

    Ginsberg's video (shown on MTV's "Buzz Bin" and at the Sundance Film Festival) for "The Ballad of the Skeletons," directed by Gus Van Sant and featuring musical accompaniment by Paul McCartney, Lenny Kaye and Philip Glass

    MTV's obituary for the poet

    Finally, though it can't be embedded: experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas' Scenes from Allen's Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit documents the scene just before and after Ginsberg's passing in 1997, including conversations with those who've gathered to send their friend off [note: this can be a challenging and emotional film to watch]

    And some optional readings:
    • Ginsberg's obituary in The New York Times: [link]
    • "Memories of Allen," a tribute from Rolling Stone: PDF
    • Mikal Gilmore's obituary for Ginsberg (also from Rolling Stone): PDF

    October 2nd: Allen Ginsberg Day 5 — Fame and Death in the 1970s and early 80s

    Ginsberg at the 1968 National Book Awards ceremony with
    fellow poets Robert Creeley (left) and John Ashbery (right).
    One of the first poems you'll read for today is "Who," Ginsberg's response to the folks at Who's Who when they asked him for a biographical blurb in 1973. In that same year, he'd release his collection, The Fall of America: Poems of these States 1965-1971, which would go on to win the National Book Award for Poetry in 1974. This recognition, as well as his admission to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and winning a National Arts Club gold medal (both in 1979), and Ginsberg's co-founding (with Anne Waldman) of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University (in 1974) were emblematic of the poet's evolution from a feared radical to an accepted and even lauded cultural figure over the course of the 1970s — a strange and wonderful occurrence when you consider that in the late 1950s, his alma mater, Columbia University, wouldn't even buy a copy of Howl and Other Poems for its library. At the same time, it's worth noting that while Ginsberg might've garnered more mainstream attention, that doesn't mean that his social, sexual or political perspectives dimmed in their contrarian intensity. Upon being invited to join the American Academy, for example, he immediate began lobbying for his friends and peers to receive the same honor, eventually seeing William S. Burroughs join the organization as well. He also continued to criticize injustice and abuse of power wherever he saw it, particularly in his great latter-day work "Plutonian Ode," part of his protest of the Rocky Flats nuclear power plant near Naropa in Boulder, Colorado.

    This period was also marked by a growing awareness of his own mortality. Ginsberg had already mourned his mother, Naomi, and friends including Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, and in the mid-70s, he'd also lose his father, Louis, but in the process, write some of the finest, most moving poetry of his later years. Ginsberg faced each new change in his life with an unfaltering sense of self-awareness, and tracked his evolving role in society, in his relationships with friends and lovers, and natural process of aging (and eventually death), guided by his art and taking solace in his Buddhism.

    Ginsberg was a guest on David Letterman's late-night talk show in June 1983.
    If a major thread of Ginsberg's life in the 1970s is his struggle to once again come to terms with a new public persona (as he'd similarly done in the wake of "Howl" in the late 1950s) the 1980s were a decade in which he happily embraced his myriad roles in American and international cultural spheres and even added a few more.

    While he'd been somewhat ambivalent about his position as professor at Naropa (and taught, unpaid, for the sake of the program and so that other poets might make a little money), Ginsberg was appointed Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College in 1986 and taught there until his death eleven years later. The opportunity to revisit germinal texts, share the work of his Beat comrades, support up-and-coming writers and interact with students was rejuvenating for Ginsberg and helped shape his work throughout the decade.

    With Joe Strummer of the Clash, 1981.
    A spirit of retrospection and nostalgia hung over the poet as he marked the changes in his ever-lengthening life — losing both of his parents, moving back to New York from Boulder, his problematically-evolving relationship with Orlovsky, the growing AIDS crisis, Reagan-era conservatism and political misdeeds, etc. — and while he sometimes felt like "a prisoner of Allen Ginsberg" as one of the poems you'll read attests, he often took these stresses in stride and relished the potential his worldwide renown brought for advocating social change. While he continued to use poetry as a forum for his activism, his growing interest in popular music — which began with his friendships with Bob Dylan and the Beatles in the 1960s and would yield albums of Blake songs and blues numbers in the 70s — came into full flourish in this decade, with Ginsberg using song as a vehicle for strident political commentary (cf. his collaboration with the Clash, "Capitol Air;" "The Little Fish Devours the Big Fish;" "Birdbrain!"), religious instruction ("Do the Meditation Rock") or general lyrical embellishment (on tracks from the 1989 Hal Wilner-prodced album The Lion for Real, including several you've already heard: "To Aunt Rose," "Xmas Gift," "The End," "Stanzas: Written at Night in Radio City," etc.).

    Ginsberg also reconnected with his love of photography at this time, thanks to the encouragement of friends including Raymond Foye and Robert Frank. He had his first exhibition of photos from the Beats formative years, "Hideous Human Angels," at Holly Solomon Gallery in 1985 and would eventually publish several collections of his work, in addition to staging many more showings. Several years ago, for example, there was a landmark exhibition of his photography at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

    Finally, during this decade we see what's perhaps the clearest evidence of Ginsberg's prominent role in American life and culture and the significance of his work in two major financial transactions: his signing a six-book contract with Harper and Row — which would yield Collected Poems 1947-1980 along with a lengthy volume of the poet's mid-50s journals and several subsequent collections of poetry — and his arrangement for Stanford to house his archives. While many in the poetry world cried sellout, one should note that though Ginsberg's busy reading, teaching and publishing schedule did bring in a respectable income, he immediately divested himself of much of that through charitable donations and gifts of money for living expenses to an ever-growing roll of indigent artists, poets and musicians (Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, and esteemed folklorist Harry Smith all drew regular paychecks from Ginsberg). Moreover, his business deals often sought to benefit others besides himself: most importantly, Ginsberg protected City Lights by insisting upon provisions in his Harper and Row deal that would allow the independent publisher to continue issuing his books in individual Pocket Poets volumes. What these deals did was provide an aging poet in increasingly-poor health a small modicum of comfort in his autumn years.

    Here are our readings for Thursday:
    • Xmas Gift (595): MP3
    • Who (603)
    • Yes, and It's Hopeless (604)
    • What I'd Like to Do (610) 
    • News Bulletin (613) 
    • Manifesto (625)
    • Mugging (633) : MP3
    • Who Runs America? (636)
    • Gospel Noble Truths (649): MP3
    • Junk Mail (665) 
    • "You Might Get in Trouble" (668)
    • Punk Rock Your My Big Crybaby (691): MP3 / MP3
    • Don't Grow Old (659): MP3MP3; excerpt, "Father Death Blues": MP3
    • Plutonian Ode (710): MP3
    • "Don't Grow Old" (718): MP3 (read my note on this recording here)
    • Brooklyn College Brain (725)
    • After Whitman and Reznikoff (740): MP3
    • Fourth Floor, Dawn, Up All Night Writing Letters (744)
    • Ode to Failure (745): MP3
    • Capitol Air (751): MP3 (note: live with the Clash 1981, see "Ghetto Defendant" below as well)
    • Why I Meditate (851)
    • Do the Meditation Rock (863): MP3
    • The Little Fish Devours the Big Fish (865): MP3
    And here are a few supplemental videos:

    Ginsberg sings "Father Death Blues"

    Another version of "Father Death Blues"

    Ginsberg sings "Gospel Noble Truths"

    Ginsberg (with Steven Taylor on guitar and Arthur Russell on cello) performs "Do the Meditation Rock" on Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, Nam June Paik's live satellite TV celebration of New Year's 1984 (which is astoundingly great). That's Peter Orlovsky meditating, by the way.

    Ginsberg's appearance on the Clash's track, "Ghetto Defendant"

    Ginsberg sings "Capitol Air" with a Kansas City punk band in the film Poetry in Motion