Tuesday, April 7, 2009

STL #83: Four Beats

I'm going to cut a huge swath here and do about 45 pages and four poets at once. The Beat canon has shifted a little since the publication of the anthology. From Allen's quartert of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, and Orvlosky you might drop K (whose gift was prose) and Orlovsky (presently more a character in Ginsberg's biography than anything else) and draw Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti in from other sections. Despite criticisms and shortcomings, these Beats all have something to offer.

Of course, those offerings aren't necessarily on display here. The best writing by Jack Kerouac in this collection is the first few autobiographical sentences of his contributor's note: "After my brother died, when I was four, they tell me I began to sit motionlessly in the parlor, pale and thin, and after a few months of sorrow began to play the old Victrola and act out movies to the music." I am not a Kerouac-basher. People who shake off an adolescent admiration for On The Road tend to over-react and find his work adolescent. His style has its limits to be sure, but I've reread some of his novels with interest. Unfortunately, his cult to big enough to keep everything he ever wrote in print, including his bad poetry (and it's all bad). The thought that he wrote over 250 "choruses" of Mexico City Blues is distressing. The dozen included here don't have much to offer, and are as fatuous and mis-informed as his detractors would have it. One of the things about Kerouac that I find fascinating is that he was a Roman Catholic in continual confession, not the hip Buddhist gunning for Enlightenment as he claimed. But as he wrote in his note on poetics here, "I have trouble covering up my bullshit lies."

Ginsberg's towering achievement is unquestionably Howl and his ode to Walt Whitman "A Supermarket in California" is an American-lit anthology stand-by for its allusions, imagery, and 'discussabilty.' In his "Notes for Howl and Other Poems," he describes how his line is "one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of breath." This of course sounds a lot like the Projectivist rap promoted by Olson, except for Olson the breath represents WORK rather than thought. This difference makes sense, since Olson works his learning and sources pronouncedly than Ginsberg, who even when squirreling into Eastern or visionary traditions is much more open to inspiration and the first-thought best-thought ethos. In "A Supermarket in California," his first line/thought-breath contains Whitman, the night, and his headache--it is a reproduction of a moment in time when Walt Whitman came into his mind. When he goes "shopping for images" inside the store, enumerations sweep into his head. What is so delightful in the poem is the 'fact' that he follows Whitman through the store, follow only in his "imagination by the store detective" (when the opposite is "real".)

Less hallowed than "Supermarket" or Howl is Corso's "Marriage." As I write through these pieces, some of the hallmarks of the Beats become apparent: loose, spontaneous conglomerations of nouns jammed together in long baggy lines, gestures toward Eastern philosophy, and an a-political protest of institutions like marriage. It's a do-nothing kind of protest because it never proposes doing anything about current conditions. In "Marriage," Corso even imagines capitulating to the square institution. To not be ridiculous, the do-nothing critic must temper his critique with humor:

I see love as odd as wearing shoes

I ncver wanted to marry a girl who was like my mother

And Ingrid Bergman was always impossible

And there's maybe a girl but she's already married

And I don't like men and --

but there's got to be somebody!

Because what if I'm 60 years old and not married,

all alone in a furnished room with pee stains on my underwear

and everybody else is married! All the universe married but me!

The most puzzling (and least well-known) of these four Beats is Peter Orlovsky. I feel genuinely uncomfortable reading his "Second Poem." It starts off as a pleasant description of a desultory morning, seeming like a poised naivete hiding a savvy hipster. The line "like my farther/I've done flick the ashes & buts" strike one as a bit odd, but probably intentional. This momentary doubt flares up as a flurry of misspelled words ("frist of all"; a "nock on the door"; "pancaks") turns up over the next few lines. Flipping to the back biography, we read "I.Q. 90 in school, now specialized IQ in thousands." It's harder for a savant to succeed in literate art than a visual one, but the imagination can transcend traditional intelligence. But intuiting a little about his relationship with Ginsberg, the situation and execution of this poem about making a "paradise" of his "room-land" gets a little ooky. Putting that context aside, it can be read as a self-portrait of a marginal man with a powerful imagination: "My life and my room are like two huge bugs following me around the globe."

Further reading? Maybe Orlovsky, maybe Ginsberg's Wichita Vortex Sutra