Tuesday, January 22, 2008

weekend tourist beatniks not permitted

For the August 6 issue of the New Yorker the mag sent out one of its "Talk of the Town" writers to find out what was making Greenwich Village coffeehouse so attractive to "beatniks" - and whether there was much variation between and among the day's bohemians. The first impression the Village gave off incited a list: "motorcycles, sports cars, Cadillacs, Larks, bicycles, tricycles, little kids, bigger kids, boy gangs, man gangs, girl gangs, young couples, old couples, middle-aged couples, loners, black-garbed Italian ladies in their seventies, panhandlers, book carriers, and Beats of various shapes, sizes and natures. Paperback books, handwrought jewelry, antiques, sandals, pottery, straw objects, paintings, simmering Italian sausages, onions, and pizzas, and freshly boiled sweet corn...."

Using the "Talk" first-person plural, a coffeehouse denizen is approached:

"You Beat?" we asked.
"It's a legitimate thing to be a Beatnik, even though most of the time it's the provincial thing," he said. "It draws me. It's the power of innocence."

The destination was Cafe Figaro at the corner of Bleecker and Macdougal. Tom Ziegler owned the Figaro and said, "Our Beatniks are the real, true old-fashioned, wonderful bohemians...We don't permit weekend tourst Beatniks--a lot of them come down from the Bronx sporting day-old beards--or any would-be Beatniks who read about the press-created-image Beatniks and try to be like them, to work out their psychic difficulties here."

It was not clear how Ziegler didn't "permit" fake or superficial or part-time beatniks from his establishment. I'm having fun imagining this - and the faux beatniks' reaction to being called out as such.

"Life Line," New Yorker, Aug 6, 1960, pp. 21-23

Saturday, January 19, 2008

that tell-tale negligent slouch

Late '59, and the super-famous literary journalist Malcolm Cowley (ex-expatriate, ex-radical, now household name among readers of the centrist-liberal literary weeklies such as The New Republic) was obviously working on Whitman. His three-page essay about Whitman published in the October 26, 1959 issue of TNR seems to be a chip off the workbench - something that came to him from another larger project. (That larger project was an introduction he wrote for a 1959 edition of Leaves of Grass.)

Even all those years ago, a slick literary weekly is not just going to publish an essay on Whitman's developing system of philosophy - I mean, an essay that is not a review and not hitched to some more relevant matter.

That is why, I think, Cowley adapted his piece about Whitman's philosophical ideas so that it's main point, seemingly, was that Whitman is a beatnik. Perhaps I found this interesting to read, then, only (1) in context of its original publication and (2) as a way of disclosing conventions of literary journalism.

It's a literary essay trying rather desperately and stupidly/superficially for a wider audience than one would get in 1960 by publishing in American Quarterly or American Literature. But now, for all time, we can say that people at the end of the 50s thought of Whitman as a forerunner of the beats on the basis of facts such as that both Walt and the beatnik walked with a "negligent slouch."

But it turns out that "Whitman's beatnik period...proved to be only a transitory phase of a life that had several other phases." So there's cake and eating it too. Whitman is a beat (EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!) but he's really not (we wouldn't want to be a slave to fashion).

So, follow me here: Whitman is a beatnik. Read on. But, well, no he's not. And in fact Whitman (and thus the beats) do all these extra-poetic antics to cover over the fact that the writing is bad. This is why someone like Kenneth Patchen sets his poetry to music - so that the music will drown out the poems' flaws; hence (still following?) since Whitman was like a beat, one can imagine Whitman needing a loud band to play while one hears his verse too, similarly hiding its failure as verse.

Cowley's piece was called "The Guru, the Beatnik and the Good Gray Poet." Here's a portion:

There were...literary men who described their meetings with Whitman in a tone of fascinated horror that suggests that accounts of present-day visitors to North Beach or Venice West. Indeed one cannot help feeling that the Whitman of those days was a predecessor of the beatniks. He had the beard, the untrimmed hair, the negligent slouch.... His costume...was another defiance of convention that might be regarded as the 1960 equivalent of sweatshirt and sandals.... He stayed out of the rat race, he avoided the squares, preferring the company of omnibus drivers and deckhands on the ferries; he was "real gone," he was "far out"; and he was writing poems in what Lawrence Lipton calls "the 'open,' free-swinging style that is prized in Beat Generation literature." "Whitman must have thought he was Kenneth Patchen," Lloyd Frankenberg said of those particular poems. Some of them should be read to loud music as a means of glossing over their faults and holding the listener's attention - not to the music of a jazz combo but perhaps to that of a regimental brass band.

Cowley also published on Whitman in the October 31, 1959 issue of the Saturday Review. This seems to be right out of the introduction he wrote for the above-mentioned new edition.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

(anti-)school of quietude

Here's a poem I found in the Nation, submitted by George Cuomo. It has a long title (in bold below) and the body of the poem is one line.

- - -

Poem in Honor of Poets
Who Form Schools
Deliver Manifestoes
Name Generations
Chant Slogans
Praise Each Other
And Roar in Cellar Saloons

They also serve who only sit and write.

- - -

Cuomo (born 1929 and apparently still around) published eight novels, a bunch of short stories, some poetry (haven't found any yet), and at least one book of nonfiction. When he published this angry ditty in the Nation he hadn't yet published his first novel; that was Jack Be Nimble of 1963. Given that his main characters - e.g. a small-time criminal caught up in a brutal prison riot - would seem to befit the anti-establishment aesthetic of the poetry he attacks in his poem, I'm guessing that by the time was publishing in novels, real '60s fiction, he had changed his mind or tempered his view. Or perhaps what was okay in fiction wasn't in verse. Or perhaps he's really merely expressing his preference for the introverted life of writers who write rather than affiliate and proclaim themselves.

Nation May 2, 1959, p. 146.


Found in the Baltimore Evening Sun: "Therefore, says David Rosen-Jaffe, he is going to search for his bride not in Effete and urban Tel Aviv but in a rural farming area."

To which the wisecracking filler-space writing New Yorker writer quipped: "Prettiest girl we ever saw was in Effete, just the same."

New Yorker, June 6, 1959, p. 117

Monday, January 14, 2008

Gordon Parks chooses Robinson Jeffers

The February 15 issue of Life did a photo spread on modern and contemporary American poetry. To kick off National Library Week, Life commissioned Gordon Parks to celebration "the nationwide poetry boon." Parks chose some favorite poems and took photographs to go along with them, "conveying their themes with his camera." The subtitle of the spread: "Captured by the camera: haunting loveliness based on modern verse." The poets selected: John Peale Bishop, Millay, MacLeish, Frost, WCW ("The Red Wheelbarrow"), Jeffers, Richard Wilbur, Eliot, Crane. In the caption for Williams: "...writes extremely conversational verse." Eliot: "...the most influential of all contemporary poets...also one of the most complex." Crane: "...a highly neurotic genius."

Parks was the first African American to work at Life. He co-founded Essence. His semi-autobiographical The Learning Tree would come out four years later, in '64, as would his film Flavio. He was an early contributor to the blaxploitation genre, and his son, Gordon Jr., directed Superfly. Again Life's intro to this "Kaleidoscope" notes that Parks chose the poems; already a main interest was race in America, yet none of the poems even hints at race or even really gestures toward the politics to which Parks would be so devoted. Perhaps this was all thematically truly before, for instance, he created a photo essay documenting the Selma to Montgomery march for Life (1963). At right, though, is a photo of Langston Hughes Park took in 1941; he apparently did not choose a Hughes poem for this spread.

In any case, Life is ecstatic about poetry's comeback: "Recordings of poems have rung up sales of more than two million albums. Poets are barnstorming the country, to recite their works before sellout audiences. In nightclubs and coffee houses, declaiming poetry is the rage, with out without musical accompaniment."