American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation
University of California Press, 2004
Wichita Vortex Sutra (CD)
Ginsberg Records, 2013
When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School
Harper Collins Publishers, 2005
Danger on Peaks
Shoemaker Hoard, 2004
It is a Saturday night in San Francisco, October 7, 1955. At the Six Gallery, an intoxicated, unknown, and virtually unpublished poet reads the first section of a new poem he has been working on to a drunken audience. His poem gives voice to a heretofore voiceless group of individuals tired of what they perceive as America’s madness; indifference to any sort of spiritual values; and emphasis on materialism, money, industry, and conformity. The poet is Allen Ginsberg, the poem Howl. In 1956 the complete poem with two more parts finds publication with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights. By 1957 Howl has been censored, banned, seized, and then subsequently ruled to have “artistic merit.” After this, Ginsberg becomes one of the most well-known (and hated) poets, and for a brief, shining time, he and the Beats make poetry cool and dangerous.
Flash forward nearly sixty years. Once the pariahs of the literary world, the Beats have found mainstream recognition. Consider Ginsberg. Over the last decade or so, we have seen the new omnibuses of reprinted poems, a book of interviews, collections of his prose writings, compact discs of his poetry performed, and numerous volumes of correspondence, including a hefty volume of letters between Allen and his father, Louis. Even textbook publisher W. W. Norton now includes parts two and three of Howl as well as several other poems in its American literature anthology.
Raskin’s American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation takes advantage of these publications and a few documents no one else has accessed (including Ginsberg’s psychiatric reports), synthesizes them, producing one of those rare scholarly books written in a smooth but smart prose that welcomes both beginner and expert by combining solid research with careful attention to primary texts. Rather than pulling away from Ginsberg’s work, Raskin focuses on close readings of his poetry, reinforced with biographical and cultural information about a young Ginsberg struggling to find his own voice and identity; his schizophrenic mother and conservative poet father; his associates Herbert Huncke and Carl Solomon; a very urban New York; a bohemian California; and an America at the end of the Korean War, the middle of McCarthyism, and the beginning of Civil Rights.
While Raskin focuses primarily on Ginsberg and Howl, he also examines some other notable Ginsberg poems, including those of the Howl-era, such as “A Supermarket in California,” “Sunflower Sutra,” Ginsberg’s next epic Kaddish, numerous later poems, and the connections among them. Other important figures he discusses in the context of both the Beat movement and Howl include Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs.
American Scream never engages in hero worship. Raskin points out and corrects small liberties (sometimes inaccuracies) Ginsberg took with events and people, especially Carl Solomon. Also, we have heard plenty about the influence of such radical poets on his work like William Blake and Walt Whitman, but Raskin directs our attention as well to more conservative poets, among them T. S. Eliot and Louis Ginsberg. And while American Scream preserves the image of an altruistic Ginsberg helping his friends find publication and championing the causes of the downtrodden, but Raskin counterbalances this with one of another Ginsberg working hard to promote himself and his poetry, eager for fame and recognition.
The result is a study that is intelligent and accessible, yet expansive and succinct. Perhaps the last is the one drawback of American Scream. On the one hand, there are great critical ideas that deserve further elaboration than what a body of 230 pages permits. In reference to the poem’s discussions of sexual acts and identity, for example, Raskin writes that “Neal Cassady is the ‘secret hero’ of Howl because his bisexuality remains under wraps. Howl conceals even as it reveals, covers up even as it appears to undress and go naked.” This has startling implications and opens up an interesting binary between concealing and revealing that extends to much of the poem’s content, but this is all we will hear of it. On the other hand, it is refreshing to see a study that wastes no sentences. One wonders how Ginsberg, who died in 1997, would receive American Scream. Over the years, he made a variety of statements regarding literary (mis)study. One of the tamer ones, from 1959, is “a word on the Academies: poetry has been attacked by an ignorant and frightened bunch of bores.” Raskin, perhaps one of the few, has gotten it right.
In 1966, Allen Ginsberg travels across the United States. As he says of himself, “I am the Universe tonite / riding in all my power riding / chauffeured thru my self by a long-haired saint with eyeglasses.” While Peter Orlovsky drives, Ginsberg sits at a small table in the back of a Volkswagen bus making “a recorded time capsule collage of sensory imagery while crossing the country.” Ginsberg explains that “it was a collage of what I saw in America during the time of the [Vietnam] war.” This collage, with few alterations, became Wichita Vortex Sutra and was one of several attempts to create something as politically significant and moving as Howl. A version of the poem that Ginsberg recorded at St. Mark’s Church in New York October 29, 1994, is now available in a CD produced for the poet’s estate.
This rendition of Wichita Vortex Sutra features more than just the poet reading his piece, however. Ginsberg states that “I search for the language / that is also yours—.” And for this reading, he expands that language to include musical accompaniment. Producer Hal Willner has decided to use a previously-arranged Philip Glass section as the centerpiece, inviting other composers and musicians to collaborate on the rest. The instruments include trombone, didgeridoo, flute, violin, mandolin, guitars, drums, percussion, bass, contrabass clarinet, piano, turntables, and various sound effects. Usually the instruments reinforce what Ginsberg says and how he says it. But they occasionally move in uncharted directions and serve as more of a distraction than a complement to his reading. At the same time, such diversions help replicate Ginsberg’s original dictation of his poetic montage, which draws from “broadcasts from the car radio, landscape, conversations in the car, tags and thoughts, newspaper headlines, paragraphs,” and “ruminations.” With so many diverse elements present, there exists the danger of the performance sounding like a mishmash of codes and gibberish, yet all of the pieces fit.
But what of the poet himself? When Ginsberg read the poem, he was sixty-eight and suffering from the flu. Yet he displays a smooth, sometimes controlled, sometimes booming, always expressive and full voice with no trace of illness and little of age: This is no flat recitation by a frail, aging poet speaking in shadowy wisps. Although the reading does not always have the fiery gushes of his earlier ones, perhaps, it is evenly paced with peaks and crescendos duplicated by the instrumentation. He trades rawness for refinement. As his reading closes, all of the musicians improvise in a cacophonic dervish and his voice strengthens. Suddenly there comes the sound of a needle losing contact with a record. Complete silence. The poet declares, “enough! / the war is over now.”
Think of your writing idols. Now imagine interacting with them daily for two years. In the summer of 1976, Sam Kashner left a “strict, all-boys” college to enroll as the first student in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Buddhist-oriented Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “I wanted to write poetry,” he confesses, “and have cool friends and thumb my nose at the establishment; at the same time I wanted to make my parents proud of me.
“How was I going to do all that?”
Kashner’s question defines the central tension of his memoir: he simultaneously feels scared and excited at the prospect of being Beat. Though his reticence prevented him from knowing Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Gregory Corso on a level that would provide a powerful first-person portrait of the Beats, ironically this same quality has allowed him enough distance to provide a possibly more objective narrative. Thus he floats through the book as a silent, ever-present shadow of the Beats, hearing almost everything and saying nearly nothing.
If you are new to the Beats, this book is not the place to begin. Kashner warns the reader, “[P]lease don’t read this book if you’re looking . . . for a history of the Beat Generation.” This is a first-person account of a Beat sidekick who knew the Beats during a very narrow window of time in the 1970s, though there are frequent digressions into earlier decades. Its value is not for its scholarly research, its revelation of secrets, or even its style. There are no major disclosures in which we discover that Neal Cassady actually wrote On the Road, that Kerouac had sex with Ginsberg, or precisely why Ginsberg agreed to have Naomi, his mother, lobotomized. The tone is never saccharine but often unashamedly sentimental, and Kashner’s voice is innocent, honest, young, curious, heartfelt, unsure, and clear but also occasionally stumbling.
Nonetheless, When I Was Cool affords a unique look at some key figures of the Beat movement in the late afternoon or very early twilight of their careers along with lesser-known or satellite figures, including Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, Peter Orlovsky, Ed Sanders, Billy Burroughs, Louis Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, Phillip Whalen, and Chogyam Rinpoche. The memoir simultaneously reinforces and goes beyond the one-dimensional caricatures the media often assigns to the famous. Kashner portrays Ginsberg, for instance, as a very detail-oriented man with a love of lists, labels, early bedtimes, and conspiracy theories: “Allen announced he thought there might be a spy at Naropa.” Corso reveals some of the humanity beneath his cold exterior: “‘[L]ove is the whole ball game. There isn’t really anything else.’” Burroughs appears, to put it bluntly, still just plain weird with an imaginary maps class and reliance on a “psychic surgeon” to treat his son.
However, the book is more than just a character catalog; there are multiple, ongoing narratives operating beneath the surface: Burroughs’s worsening medical condition and dysfunctional relationship with his father, Naropa’s quest for accreditation, Kashner’s attempts at romance, Ginsberg’s attempts at romance with Kashner, Rinpoche’s forced undressing of W. S. Merwin and his girlfriend, the details of Kerouac’s funeral and Corso’s hustles.
Oddly, Kashner connects best with Gregory Corso perhaps because Ginsberg assigns him as his babysitter. We are never quite sure, as Kashner is never sure, whether he bonds (or not) with Corso because he gives in more easily to his scams for money or if they are misfits even within a collection of outcasts. With Corso and Kashner, one can only conclude that opposites must surely attract. Whereas the others find Corso too unstable and untrustworthy to retain as faculty, Kashner seems reliable to a fault and quite straight-laced despite bedding several women.
Although there exists the temptation at times to read this as a square’s perspective of the Beats if it were not so funny, When I Was Cool contains an eternal truth. There is a Buddhist saying from Lin Chi that advises us to kill a Buddha if we should find one. One of the more common meanings people find in this statement is that one should reject those who seem to have all the answers. In short, kill your idols and your image of them to liberate yourself. To really be beat, one cannot be anything like the Beats. Kashner reflects that he “was there for the ending. Or, maybe, the beginning of the end.” This ending is not just that of the Beats but also of something inside Kashner; this, perhaps, is the real story. To return to the author’s initial question of how to please both himself and others, he cannot. The old cliché is true; most of us cannot have our lives both ways. This, perhaps, is the final truth that Kashner and his readers find most painful and most valuable.
“New friends and dear sweet old tree ghosts / here we are again. Enjoy the day,” welcomes Gary Snyder in Danger on Peaks. In this collection, the poet experiments with haibun, a hybrid form in which a small piece of haiku-like poetry completes, after a few blank lines, a preceding chunk of prose poetry. These pieces frequently look like jagged fragments from an eruption or detonation. One could summarize Danger on Peaks as a history or theory of explosions, how things fall apart and also how they stay together.
The first of six sections, “Mount St. Helens” includes the poem “Atomic Dawn,” a prose poem about Snyder’s first climb up Mount St. Helens. After descending the mountain, he walks over to the lodge and finds “whole pages of the paper pinned up photos of a blasted city from the air, the estimate of 150,000 dead in Hiroshima alone.” “1980: Letting Go” describes the eruption of Mount. St. Helens and “two horses swept off struggling in the hot mud / a motionless child laid back in a stranded ashy pickup.” Connecting to those previous poems, the narrator speaks of ash that “falls like snow on wheatfields and orchards to the east / five hundred Hiroshima bombs.” As the first section closes, Snyder asks, “what’s old? What’s new?” as if to suggest that time is not a sharp series of discrete events but a continuous, recurring, and fluid movement.
Briefly leaving the longer, more prosaic poems of the first section, the second section “Yet Older Matters” highlight the divide and the equilibrium that the urban and rural realms share. Snyder’s modern haiku “A Dent in a Bucket” throws off the strict syllable count but retains the deepness of image and precision of word choice as it describes “hammering a dent out of a bucket / a woodpecker / answers from the woods.” The poems of Danger on Peaks continually invite us to stop and listen for a moment for the small sounds of our immediate surroundings. Another example of this is “Cool Clay”: “In a swarm of yellowjackets / a squirrel drinks water / feet in the cool clay, head way down.” These organic poems will refresh readers tired of reading inflated lines fizzling and occasionally flashing but rarely illuminating. During an initial reading one might dismiss these poems as trite, but in an era of twitter, texting, and other hollow, superficial communications, we need such poems desperately. Before we become too comfortable in these serene images, “Glacier Ghosts” reminds us that “things spread out / rolling and unrolling, packing and unpacking, / this painful impermanent world.”
“Daily Life,” the title of section three takes us into Snyder’s thoughts as he moves through his daily routine. As if reflecting on the past two sections, he realizes that all we can be sure of is this moment. In “Strong Sprit,” he recalls that passing of his friend “poet, translator, Ok-ku died last fall.” He pays his respects, “spirit for the spirit, bright poet gone,” but realizes he (and we) must “pass the cup among the living.” While one may reflect upon and celebrate the past, Snyder urges the reader to continue forward. Other poems reinforce this point such as “Ankle-deep in Ashes,” in which the narrator finds a pine tree alive within “miles of standing dead trees.” Section three concludes with what may be the best poem in the book— “Waiting for a Ride.” In this poem, Snyder stands “at the baggage passing time” in an “Austin Texas airport” awaiting his ride. As he waits he thinks about his mother, wife, stepdaughter, and former wife. His life’s memories provoke contemplation of the “narrow painful passage way of the Bardo,” the state after the previous life and before the next incarnation in which one waits. Thus the wait at the airport, his book, the poem, and the body of Gary Snyder are merely brief stops or pauses along the larger way.
Returning to his theme of industrial and pastoral conflict in section four, titled “Steady, They Say,” Snyder compares the signs of a “Denny’s,” “McDonald’s,” and “Shell” to “skinny wildweed flowers.” Such juxtaposition reminds us of the commonality of chain stores and our decreasing connection to nature. After commemorating friend and Zen monk Phillip Whalen in a poem, Snyder moves forward in “Steady, They Say” and looks “north to stony mountains / shifting clouds and sun / despair at how the human world goes down.”
This reflection on impermanence and change prepares the reader for section five, “Dust in the Wind.” Here Snyder finds his poetic stride and his use of haibun peaks. These poems consider the ever-changing quality of the universe. Often they shift from urban to rural representations and from the present to the past at the exact point that they make a transition in form. The effect is startling. In “Spilling the Wind” the speaker takes us from “steady semis and darting little cars” to “hundreds of white-fronted geese.” “For Anthea Corinne Snyder Lowery” explains that “the pickup ahead of her lost a grassmower off the back. She pulled onto the shoulder, and walked right out into the lane to take it off...Stuck by a speedy car, an instant death.
White egrets there
always standing there
there at the crossing
on the Petaluma River.
“After the Bamiyan,” the concluding section, extends the book’s theme of loss and continuance. In a translation of Issa, Snyder considers that “this dewdrop world / is but a dewdrop world / and yet—” That ‘and yet,’ he believes, “is our perennial practice.” Thus while Snyder realizes the fragility of the world, he resists responding with passivity. “After Bamiyan” and “Loose on Earth” discuss the events of September 11, 2001, along with the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas at the hands of the Taliban. Through these references, this section touches back on the initial poems about Hiroshima and Mount St. Helens. Snyder writes that “we’re loose on earth / half a million years / our weird blast spreading.” He continues “and after / rubble—millennia to weather, / soften, fragment,” we will “sprout, and” become “green again.” Perhaps there is hope for us after all that if we cannot prevent or contain these destructive blasts, we can at least endure them.