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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A little Ginsberg reading list shift

Because of the shift in days for Ginsberg we've run into a little bit of a problem with a student who'd really like to present on "Kaddish" but won't be able to be in class on the new day for "Kaddish." To accommodate this situation — and with the blessing of the other students presenting on the affected days — we're going to shift the reading list just a little bit, as follows:

  • September 23rd: "Kaddish," "Europe! Europe!," "Transcription of Organ Music"
  • September 25th: all of the other poems listed for both the 23rd and 25th aside from the above
"Kaddish" is the longest poem you'll read this term, though its length benefits its intentions, and so though it might not seem like it, the readings for each day are still relatively balanced. Thank you all for your flexibility. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

September 30th: Allen Ginsberg Day 4 — Poet Becomes Activist

As the 1960s continued, Ginsberg's fame (or notoriety) grew more widespread, and with it grew his awareness of the soapbox he'd stumbled upon. Horrified by what he saw as a bloodthirsty culture of death and violence, and simultaneously heartened by the civil rights movement, the growing youth counterculture and queer liberation, the young poet — who once aspired to become a labor lawyer — found himself becoming more and more politicized. You can see this thread traced from a poem like "Howl" and "America" to "Death to Van Gogh's Ear" or the discussion of his mother's communism in "Kaddish" and this current will further strengthen in our readings for Tuesday. The key poem here is "Wichita Vortex Sutra" — the third great epic masterpiece of his early career — and we'll discuss it in detail.

Here's a quick list of some of the major events happening in Ginsberg's life through the 1960s:
  • He travels the world, starting in Paris and continuing on to Tangiers, Greece and Israel before extended stays in India (as documented in his Indian Journals) and Japan.
  • He has his first psychedelic experiences with both psilocybin and LSD, courtesy of Timothy Leary, which would influence the composition of visionary poems such as "Wales Visitation."
  • He testifies for the defense in the Boston obscenity trial of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch.
  • He travels to Cuba, where he causes a political ruckus and is swiftly deported to Prague, where he is crowned the "King of May" (or "Kral Majales," as in the poem which documents this event), causes a political ruckus and is deported once more.
  • He meets and interacts with both Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and gives a gala reading at London's Royal Albert Hall.
  • He takes part in the historic Berkeley and Vancouver Poetry Conferences (in 1965 and 63, respectively) — a sign of his growing influence in the world of poetry. (You can listen to his entire Vancouver Conference reading here)
  • His friend and former lover Neal Cassady dies in 1968, and Jack Kerouac's slow decline catches up with him when he dies in 1969.
  • He buys a top-of-the-line Uher tape recorded with money given to him by Bob Dylan, and begins composing poems by dictation during a long drive from Los Angeles to New York, many of which would appear in his volume, The Fall of America, which won the National Book Award in 1973; a key poem of this sequence, "Wichita Vortex Sutra," appears as a chapbook on its own then is published in Planet News.
  • He assumes a larger role in youth culture and politics, participating in the Human Be-In and the 1967 march on the Pentagon (as well as the 1968 protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago), and mediates a peace between the hippies and Hells Angels in San Francisco.
So, it's a busy time for Ginsberg to say the least! What we'll want to look for here is how all of these personal occurrences interact with current events in these poems — and while the war in Vietnam is a key focus, certainly other topics will come up. In addition to the personal and political, Ginsberg is also further refining and developing his spiritual side, having first studied Krishnaism while in India in the early part of the decade, and also continuing his Buddhist studies. Eventually, he'd be asked by his spiritual teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, to co-found (with poet Anne Waldman) the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University (America's only accredited Buddhist university). Much like his political views, Ginsberg would use the medium of poetry (as well as song) to spread his spiritual beliefs.

Here are our readings for Tuesday:
  • I Am a Victim of Telephone (352): MP3
  • Kral Majales (361): MP3
  • Who Be Kind To (367): MP3
  • Portland Coliseum (373)
  • First Party at Ken Kesey's With Hell's Angels (382): MP3
  • Wichita Vortex Sutra (402) (recordings listed below)
  • Growing Old Again (431)
  • Uptown (432): MP3
  • City Midnight Junk Strains (465): MP3
  • Wales Visitation (488): MP3
  • Elegy for Neal Cassady (495): MP3
  • On Neal’s Ashes (513): MP3
  • Going to Chicago (514)
  • Grant Park: August 28, 1968 (515) 
  • Car Crash (516)
  • Memory Gardens (539)
  • Flash Back (542)
  • Graffiti 12th Cubicle Men's Room Syracuse Airport (543)
  • Hum Bom! (576): MP3
As for "Wichita Vortex Sutra," we have a few options (all of which are wonderful): First, here's a straightforward reading of the entire poem, recorded in May of 1995 at the Knitting Factory:
  • Wichita Vortex Sutra I (3:14): MP3
  • Wichita Vortex Sutra II (12:52): MP3
  • Wichita Vortex Sutra III (5:51): MP3
  • Wichita Vortex Sutra IV (5:41): MP3
Next, here's a rather breathtaking musical setting of a long portion of the poem by Philip Glass, part of his collaboration with Ginsberg, Hydrogen Jukebox (a term you'll recall from "Howl"):

And here's a very interesting recording I uncovered a few summers back, in the tape archives of the poet Robert Creeley, which sets a lengthy excerpt of the poem to musical soundscape including chanting, sound effects and a snippet of Bob Dylan's "Queen Jane Approximately," among other noises:
  • Wichita Vortex Sutra (28:00): MP3
You can read my write-up of the recording (and several others released at the same time) here.

Finally, here are some supplemental links:
  • "The Last Anti-War Poem" — Rolf Pitts' 2006 article in The Believer that argues, on the 50th anniversary of "Howl," that we should instead be celebrating the 40th anniversary of "Wichita Vortex Sutra," a poem that continues to speak to our society in ways that "Howl" does not [link]
  • Footage from the May Day 1965 parade in Prague, including Ginsberg's coronation as King of May (or Kral Majales in the native parlance) [link
And a few videos:

Ginsberg reads "Kral Majales" at City Lights Books

Ginsberg on conservative pundit William F. Buckley's Firing Line in 1968

Ginsberg reads "Wales Visitation" in its entirety on the same program

Ginsberg was present when John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded "Give Peace a Chance" during their 1969 "Bed-In" in Toronto (and sings on the track)

Ginsberg leads chanting on the shores of Lake Michigan during the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968

September 25th: Allen Ginsberg Day 3 — "Kaddish" and Further Mourning

On June 9, 1956, not long before the publication of Howl and Other Poems, Allen Ginsberg's mother, Naomi (shown at left during her courtship with Ginsberg's father, Louis), passed away.  Her life had not been easy, marked by both mental illness (including numerous long stays in institutions and jarring therapies including electro-shock and insulin), further complicated in later years by a stroke.  Moreover, as a  Russian immigrant to this country, and one-time fervent participant in Communist youth groups, her paranoia was stoked by the McCarthy-era witch hunts.  

Ginsberg was particularly close to his mother, having been there during her first major mental breakdown (as a teenager, he oversaw her commitment) and continuing to look after her while her then-ex-husband and older son Eugene could (or would) not.  Particularly due to his time in an institution and the social pressures he felt during his twenties and thirties (including his disagreement with societal norms of the 1950s), he feared that her mental illness had been passed down to him.  While he felt a sense of relief that her suffering was over, her death also felt unresolved to him, particularly since at her burial there were not enough men present for a proper minyan (Kerouac and Ginsberg's lover, Peter Orlovsky, weren't Jewish and therefore not counted towards the ten men needed), therefore they could not pray the Kaddish, the traditional funeral prayer.

The day after the funeral, Ginsberg received a letter from his mother in the mail, sent right before her death, which responded to the copy of "Howl" he had recently sent her.  It mixed prophetic statements with motherly advice, saying, "The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window — I have the key — Get married Allen don't take drugs — the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window."  His brother, Eugene, received a similar note, saying, "God's informers come to my bed, and God himself I saw in the sky. The sunshine showed too, a key on the side of the window for me to get out. The yellow of the sunshine, also showed the key on the side of the window."  Taking these statements as a starting point, along with the unsaid funeral prayer, Ginsberg sought to write an epic religious poem that would both properly mourn his mother, and also tell the complete and unvarnished story of her life, and "Kaddish," two years in the making, is the realization of those goals.

In addition to "Kaddish," we'll look at several other poems from around the same time with an elegiac sense of humanity's struggles with life and death as detailed below:
  • To Aunt Rose (192): MP3
  • Kaddish (217-235, don't stop reading at the "Hymmnn" section, it keeps going)
1. Introduction to Kaddish (2:40): MP3
2. "Kaddish I" (10:11): MP3
3. "Kaddish II" (36:43): MP3
4. "Kaddish - Hymmnn" (1:37): MP3
5. "Kaddish - III" (1:46): MP3
6. "Kaddish - IV" (2:17): MP3
7. "Kaddish - V" (1:57): MP3
  • The End (267): MP3
  • This Form of Life Needs Sex (292)   
  • The Change: Tokyo-Kyoto Express (332) 
  •  Nov. 23, 1963: Alone (341)
And here are a few supplementary links:
  • Levi Asher writes on "Kaddish" on his site, LitKicks, a very early Beat resource online (this article was written in 1994, for example) [links]
  • A review of the reissued Kaddish and Other Poems in Zeek [link]
  • An illustrated version of "This Form of Life Needs Sex," by Eric Drooker (who collaborated with Ginsberg on Illuminated Poems and did the animation for Howl), Salon, 1997 [link]

Thursday, September 11, 2014

September 23rd: Allen Ginsberg Day 2 — Ginsberg in the Late 1950s

Ginsberg points at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, the inspiration for Moloch in "Howl," San Francisco, 1959.

On Tuesday, we'll continue to look at poetry from one of Ginsberg's most prolific and groundbreaking periods: the time between the composition of "Howl" in the mid-1950s and the publication of Kaddish and Other Poems in 1961.  Had the young poet never written another line, he'd have still produced more than enough to earn his reputation as one of the 20th century's most innovative poets.  It's worth noting that these poems were scattered over a number of later volumes, however Collected Poems returns them to a strict chronological order, and in doing so, Ginsberg's stylistic development is made clearer.

This period is also one of great personal change for Ginsberg.  Aside from losing his mother, Naomi (which we'll discuss in greater depth on Thursday with "Kaddish") in 1956, he also spends a great deal of time outside the country — first in Mexico (as detailed in Kerouac's Desolation Angels) and then joining William Burroughs in Morocco (where he helped transcribe and edit the manuscript of Naked Lunch) before an extended period of travel throughout Europe.  The publication of Howl and Other Poems and its subsequent obscenity trial, combined with spotlight placed on Kerouac and On the Road transformed the Beats from a subterranean group of close friends to an international phenomenon, and each struggled with it in different ways (Ginsberg, for example, felt terribly conflicted about receiving money for readings, considering it a prostitution of his talents, and suffered writers block).  Ginsberg also entered into what would be a life-long relationship (albeit an often-tumultuous one) with Peter Orlovsky, coming to terms with his homosexuality after several years of ambivalence and experimentation with women (you'll recall that in The Subterraneans — as well as in The Dharma Bums — Ginsberg's alter-egos are depicted as straight) and this spirit of acceptance would soon make its way into his writing.  This activism also carries over into questions of public obscenity and censorship, with the poet organizing several benefit readings around the issue of a suppressed issue of the Chicago Review (containing work by several Beats, most notably a visceral excerpt from Naked Lunch), which would eventually be published as the first issue of Big Table. Finally, in 1959, Ginsberg tries LSD for the first time, and while he was no stranger to drug experimentation, psychedelics would greatly shape both his aesthetic and cultural priorities in the coming years.

Ginsberg, Irving Rosenthal, and Peter Orlovsky at a Big Table benefit reading in 1959 (listen to audio here).
Also, since Thursday's conversation (and presentation) was concerned with "Howl," there are a number of worthwhile poems in that day's reading that shouldn't get lost in the shuffle ("A Supermarket in California," "Sunflower Sutra" and "America" jump immediately to mind), so we can spend some time looking at one or two of them if we haven't already covered them.

Here are our readings, with PennSound audio when available:
  • Transcription of Organ Music (148): MP3
  • Sather Gate Illumination (150)
  • Tears (159): MP3
  • In the Baggage Room at Greyhound (161): MP3
  • Ready to Roll (167)
  • Wrote This Last Night (174): MP3 
  • Death to Van Gogh's Ear (175): MP3
  • The Lion for Real (182): MP3
  • American Change (194)
  • Back in Times Square, Dreaming of Times Square (196)
  • My Sad Self (209): MP3
  • Psalm IV (246) 

September 18th: Allen Ginsberg Day 1 — "Howl" and Other Poems

While I'm sad that we'll have to leave Kerouac behind, I'm equally excited to be spending the next six classes focusing on the work of Allen Ginsberg, tracing the high points of his poetic career from the 1950s through to his death in 1997.  In our first few classes, we'll tackle the three major epic works of his early career — "Howl (for Carl Solomon)," "Kaddish" and "Wichita Vortex Sutra" — while our final classes will jump forward from the late 60s to the late 90s.

First up is "Howl," a poem many would argue is the most influential and groundbreaking poetic work of the 20th century, not only for its aesthetic innovations, but for its revolutionary effects upon the social and cultural discourse — both in the U.S. and worldwide — from the 50s into the 60s and well beyond.  The stylistic breakthrough that "Howl" would mark for Ginsberg was a long time in the making.  You'll notice, for example, that we'll more or less skip the first 120 pages of Collected Poems, and that's because — much like the massive differences between Kerouac's first novel, The Town and the City and On the Road — Ginsberg wrote a lot of poetry in the more traditional modernist mode of his father before he felt empowered to break free and write in his own expressionistic way (however, these works weren't published until much later).  Aside from NYC Beat compatriots like Kerouac and Burroughs, another key figure in his artistic development was San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth, who critiqued Ginsberg's early poetry as being too formal: "It still sounds like you're wearing Columbia University Brooks Brothers ties," he observed.  Yet another unsung hero of American literary history is Ginsberg's psychiatrist, Philip Hicks.  Here's Ginsberg's retelling of a liberating exchange between the two after Hicks asked him what he wanted to do with his life:
"Doctor, I don't think you're going to find this very healthy and clear, but I really would like to stop working forever — never work again, never do anything like the kind of work I'm doing now — and do nothing but write poetry and have leisure to spend the day outdoors and go to museums and see friends. And I'd like to keep living with someone — maybe even a man — and explore relationships that way. And cultivate my perceptions, cultivate the visionary thing in me. Just a literary and quiet city-hermit existence. Then he said 'Well, why don't you?'  I asked him what the American Psychoanalytic Association would say about that, and he said . . . if that is what you really feel would please you, what in the world is stopping you from doing it?"

Ginsberg debuted "Howl" at the famous Six Gallery Reading in San Francisco on October 7, 1955 — an event he co-organized with Gary Snyder, and which featured Rexroth as Master of Ceremonies and readings from Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia and Michael McClure.  In attendance, among many others, were Kerouac (who describes the scene early in The Dharma Bums), Neal Cassady, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and cofounder of City Lights Bookstore, along with its publishing imprint.  Ferlinghetti had already published a few books (including his own Pictures of the Gone World) in the "Pocket Poets" series (small pocket-sized books based on volumes he saw while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris on the G.I. Bill), and he was very excited at the thought of putting out Ginsberg's work — so much so that the morning after the reading he sent him a postcard mirroring Ralph Waldo Emerson's words to Walt Whitman a century earlier: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," and adding "When do I get the manuscript?"

Published in 1956, Howl and Other Poems was seized by officials and subject to an obscenity trial.  Ferlinghetti gives his own account of the trial in his essay, "Horn on Howl" [PDF], which I wholeheartedly recommend you read.  For more background on the book, I also recommend reading William Carlos Williams' introduction to the volume, which can be found on page 819 of Collected Poems.

The final piece of the puzzle missing so far is Carl Solomon, the person to whom "Howl" is dedicated.  Ginsberg met Solomon in Columbia Presbyterian Psychological Institute, a mental institution he agreed to be admitted to in lieu of serving time when he was arrested for allowing thief friends to store stolen goods at his apartment.  Ginsberg's time there was a harrowing experience for a number of reasons, including his fears that he shared his mother's mental illness (something we'll discuss in greater depth when reading "Kaddish") and his witness to the defeated Solomon, once a fervent youthful Dadaist who'd surrendered to institutionalization, tired of asserting that it was the world instead that was insane.  This distinction forms a central conceit of "Howl," as you'll see.

Here are our readings for Thursday's class (page numbers refer to Collected Poems) — when possible, I've provided links to streaming audio via PennSound:

Early Poems:
  • In Society (11)
  • The Bricklayer's Lunch Hour (12): MP3
  • Pull My Daisy (32): MP3
  • Stanzas: Written at Night in Radio City (35): MP3
  • Bop Lyrics (50)

"Howl"-era Poems:
  • In Back of the Real (121): MP3
  • Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo (131)
  • Howl (134): (1956 in San Francisco: Intro: MP3 / Poem: MP3) (1995 in NYC: Poem: MP3 / Epilogue: MP3)
  • Footnote to "Howl" (142)  (note: this is included in the files above)
  • A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley (143): MP3 (note: this "strange new cottage," which also is the setting for "Transcription of Organ Music" below, is the very same one that Alvah and Ray share in The Dharma Bums)
  • A Supermarket in California (144): MP3
  • Sunflower Sutra (146): MP3
  • America (154): MP3
  • Epigraph and Dedication to "Howl" (809, 810)
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Horn on Howl” [PDF]
William Carlos Williams, “Introduction to Howl” (819)

And here are a few supplemental links on "Howl" for your reading (and listening) pleasure:
  • NPR: "Revisiting 'Howl' at 50" [link]
  • NPR: "After 50 Years, 'Howl' Still Resonates" [link]
  • "To Save America," James Campbell's commemoration of the poem's 50th anniversary in the Guardian: [link]
  • Stephen Burt on "The Paradox of Howl" in Slate [link]
  • "Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl' in a New Controvery," The New York Times, 1988 [link]
  • "Classic Beat," Greil Marcus reflects on the poem in The New York Times, 2006 [link]
  • A page dedicated to Shig Murao, San Francisco poetry fixture and the City Lights clerk who was actually arrested for selling a copy of Howl and Other Poems.  While Murao and Ferlinghetti were co-defendants in the obscenity case, his place in history is at risk of being forgotten (cf. the film Howl, where he's written out entirely): [link]

Friday, September 5, 2014

Weeks 3–4: Jack Kerouac's "The Subterraneans"

Once I was young and had so much more orientation and could talk with nervous intelligence about everything and with clarity and without as much literary preambling as this; in other words this is the story of an unself-confident man, at the same time of an egomaniac, naturally, facetious won't do—just to start at the beginning and let the truth seep out, that's what I'll do—. It began on a warm summernight—ah, she was sitting on the fender with Julien Alexander who is . . . let me begin with a history of the subterraneans of San Francisco . . .

Thus begins Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans, the next book we'll be reading this term.

After the sudden success of On the Road Kerouac's publishers wanted to move quickly to capitalize on his notoriety, and The Subterraneans was the first of two books released in 1958 (the other being The Dharma Bums), within one year of On The RoadThe Subterraneans was not only speedily published, but also speedily written — while On the Road's first draft came together in three weeks, Kerouac wrote this book during a three day binge of caffeine and benzadrine (a popular stimulant of the era). Not surprisingly, the novella is a fine example of the author's spontaneous prose style, riddled with long, poetically recursive run-on passages.

We've already talked a little about the complicated nature of Kerouac's relation to other races and cultures, and once again, it's at the heart of this book, which focuses on a brief love affair Kerouac (here called Leo Percepied) had with an African-American woman, Alene Lee (called Mardou Fox in the book) in 1953. Here's a photo by Allen Ginsberg of Lee (with William S. Burroughs) around the time of the book's events (click to enlarge):

The Subterraneans' depiction of an interracial love affair was so controversial by late-1950s standards that when a (quite awful) film adaptation of the novel was made in 1960, the female love interest was changed to a young French woman.

As in On The Road, many of Kerouac's friends and fellow Beat Generation writers appear under pseudonyms within the narrative. Burroughs appears as Frank Carmody, while Ginsberg is Adam Moorad; Cassady is mentioned in passing as Leroy, and Gregory Corso (who we're meeting here for the first time) plays a major role in the novel under the name Yuri Gligoric. Though the real-life events took place in New York City, Kerouac chose to switch the location to San Francisco (a city he was well-acquainted with at this time).

Kerouac spent quite a bit of time and effort defending the ethos of the Beats once they came under the scrutiny of the general public, and I'm providing a PDF file of a few brief essays on this topic ("About the Beat Generation" [1957], "Lamb, No Lion" [1958] and "Beatific: The Origins of The Beat Generation" [1959]) as supplemental reading here: [link]. This novel's title, however, says quite a bit about his intentions (or wishes) for the shared philosophies of the Beats — namely that it remain hidden underground, a secret underworld paradise — and if the name reminds you of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," you're on the mark: Dylan's just one of many artists, writers and musicians who were inspired by Kerouac's prose and this book in particular. Painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, is shown at right photographed with his well-thumbed copy of the book (one of his favorites). David Bowie also titled a track from his 1977 album, Low, after the novel:

The Subterraneans is relatively brief, so we'll only be spending two days on it. The reading will break up accordingly:
  • Thursday, Sept. 11: part 1 (1–42)
  • Tuesday, Sept. 16: part 2 (43–111)

Here's Kerouac reading from The Subterraneans on the 1959 record Reading by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation [MP3]. The selection starts around page 13 in the Grove Press edition.

Finally, to provide a sense of The Subterraneans' contemporary reception, here are two reviews from major publications of the time:
  • David Dempsey's review from The New York Times: [link
  • Time Magazine's review of the novel, along with Stephen Birmingham's Young Mr. Keefe [link]* 
* I was going to make a joke about "who the hell is Stephen Birmingham?" but apparently he used to teach here at UC(?)(!) Here's a photo of the snazzily-dressed author (third from the left) at a party held in his honor in 1994: