Archives For Beatdom #12

Herbert Huncke – Times Square Superstar

by Spencer Kansa.

 Spencer Kansa and Herbert Huncke Alphabet City

I first met Herbert Huncke in the Spring of 1992, during a layover in New York, en route to visiting William Burroughs at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. Shortly after my Manhattan arrival, I received a phone call at my hotel from Burroughs’ consigliere, James Grauerholz, who graciously welcomed me to America. During our conversation, I joked how I’d been hanging around Times Square, looking for Huncke, figuring the guy was long gone by now, only for James to tip me off that, on the contrary, Huncke was very much alive and could be found playing poker most evenings at the Chelsea Hotel. Continue Reading…

Down These Mean Streets: Raymond Chandler’s L.A.

by Chris Dickerson


Certain cities belong to a few writers. They may not own the towns exclusively, but they’ve put their stamp on them so indelibly in their books and stories that anybody who writes about the places after them can’t help but live in their shadow. Dashiell Hammett long ago claimed San Francisco. Those chilly, fog-wreathed sidewalks where Sam Spade pursues the elusive Maltese Falcon reek of Prohibition Era corruption and Barbary Coast intrigue. You can still hear the echo of the pistol shot in the back alley where Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, was gunned down.

New York belongs to Pete Hamill. Not only in his three Sam Briscoe private eye novels, but in anything Hamill writes; be it journalism or fiction, the soggy heat of a summer’s day lingers over Times Square and Forty-Second Street, clogs the subways, and mingles with the fumes of trucks and taxis while the Christmas snows turn the metropolis into a hushed, glimmering wonderland.

Robert B. Parker staked out Boston for private detective Spenser, just as surely as London – where it’s always 1895 – belongs to the bustling Victorian jungle of Sherlock Holmes, and the narrow, winding streets of Paris, with its cozy cafes and the sluggish Seine, are home to Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.

Many writers have tackled the sprawling crazy-quilt that is Los Angeles; John Fante springs to mind, Michael Connelly, and certainly Charles Bukowski, but nobody captured the town better, in seven novels and numerous short stories written between 1933 and 1958, than Raymond Chandler. L.A., pure and simple, is “Chandlertown.” When Chandler writes about Los Angeles, you can smell the orange trees, the jasmine, and the eucalyptus on the night wind, feel the breeze sliding across the mountainous landscape from the nearby Pacific Ocean, and see the moon shining down like a hallowed street lamp above the ghostly black palm trees.

What’s most remarkable is, in the decades since Chandler was sending his private investigator Philip Marlowe, out on his adventures from an office on Hollywood Boulevard, the place hasn’t changed all that much – not the architecture, the people, or the sins committed in the City of Angels.

Chandler was born in 1888 in Chicago, but after his parents split up when he was a boy of seven, his mother, who was Anglo-Irish, took him back to her home in England.  He was educated there, returning to America in 1907. Then Chandler drifted. He worked a variety of menial jobs, signed on with a Canadian unit in World War I (when his outfit was shelled by the Germans, he was the only survivor), eventually winding up as the bookkeeper for an oil company in Southern California.

The Depression put an end to that. Chandler’s habitual boozing and chasing secretaries might have had something to do with it too, but either way in 1932 he was out of a job, past forty, with a wife eighteen years his senior, and a bleak future.

He decided to become a writer. He’d played around with writing as a young man, scribbling poetry and minor literary reviews. Now – with few other prospects – he went at it with the thoroughness and attention to detail of a dogged (and probably desperate) detective. He read pulp magazines. There were a few hundred of them on the newsstands every week, offering up adventure tales, sci-fi, westerns, horror, sex, and detective stories;  plenty of detective stories.

Chandler soon saw that the best of the “hard-boiled” writers was Dashiell Hammett, but Hammett didn’t invent the American private eye any more than Chandler did. That distinction probably belongs to a genial hack named Carroll John Daly, whose private detective, Race Williams, burst on the pages of Black Mask magazine in 1920 with both .45 pistols blazing, while a breathless flapper cowered behind him. Daly and the rest of his ilk, pounding out stories for the various magazines, showed Chandler the basic formula for keeping a story fast-paced, action-packed. “When in doubt,” Chandler noted, “have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

Hammett, though, was doing more than just that. Chandler, too saw the potential for character development, crackling dialogue, social commentary, and a centeredness of time and place in the gaudy, rip-roaring world of the pulps.

Chandler’s first sale to Black Mask was 1933’s “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot”; he was paid a whopping $180, a penny a word. His detective isn’t called Marlowe, but otherwise, everything else – especially the Los Angeles setting – is in place. Chandler would labor in the pulp salt mines for the next few years, honing his craft, painstakingly writing and rewriting his stories, chipping out a living (he said that at one point, he had nothing to eat for five straight days but soup). By 1939 he was ready for the big jump, and published his first novel: The Big Sleep. Its hero is a tall, good looking, well-dressed man, with a sense of integrity, a sharp eye, and a guarded nature, private eye Philip Marlowe. The landscape he moves across is the city of L.A.

“Down these mean streets a man must go,” Chandler wrote in his classic essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.” “A man who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He is the hero; he is everything… The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth.”

Marlowe established his office on Hollywood Boulevard near Ivar Avenue, on the sixth floor of the Cahuenga Building. But Chandler was sometimes cagey with his locations (like when he changed the name of Santa Monica, where a great deal of action takes place in his books, to “Bay City”). The Cahuenga Building is actually a block west from Hollywood and Ivar, on the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga. Built in 1921, it still stands today, opposite a sign on the corner denoting Raymond Chandler Square, and another sign nearby with a photo of Bogart and Bacall from the film version of The Big Sleep, indicating the location as a “Historic Hollywood Site.”

Marlowe kept the same office for years, a dusty little two-room suite down at the end of a corridor, with a pebbled glass door on which was stencilled, Philip Marlowe – Investigations. From here, he could look out over the city and gauge its mood:


– There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.

(Red Wind 1938)


But if Marlowe was reluctant to change offices, he changed his place of residence frequently. The Big Sleep finds him living in a small apartment with a Murphy bed coming down out of the wall. He lives in the Hobart Arms, “a huge white stucco affair.” He lives in an apartment in the “Berglund Arms”; and at one point, he has a place on Vine, a few blocks from his office. By the time of The Long Goodbye, he’s taken a rented house up a long flight of redwood stairs on Yucca Avenue. Marlowe’s frequent moves may reflect Chandler’s own. He seemed to be a restless man, and he and his wife moved often, finally settling in La Jolla, many miles down the coast from L.A.

Marlowe stayed in Los Angeles, and Chandler sent him roaming widely. His investigations take him from the quiet suburbs of Pasadena to the opulent estates of Beverly Hills (“the best policed four square miles in California”) and Brentwood; from the art deco high-rises of downtown L.A. to the shadowy streets of Bunker Hill; from the gated mansions along Los Feliz Boulevard. out to the ocean and “Bay City.”

What’s perhaps most interesting is the places Marlowe doesn’t go. Chandler never sends him into the picturesque and bustling streets of Chinatown, or over into the predominantly Mexican neighborhood of Westlake (now MacArthur) Park, or into the African-American section of Watts, though the opening chapter of Farewell, My Lovely, does find Marlowe in an African-American bar downtown, dragged there by the hulking Moose Malloy, in an area that “wasn’t all Negro yet.” Those locations would seem the ideal geography for an L.A.-based private eye, but Marlowe never goes near them.

It could be because Chandler wasn’t a journalist; he wasn’t interested in exploring areas he didn’t know well. Hollywood and its environs, Chandler knew. But even so, another aspect not explored in detail in the books is the movie industry. Chandler makes some swipes at it in The Little Sister – the primary female character is aspiring movie star Mavis Weld – but he never gives “the industry” the beating that, say, Nathaniel West does in Day Of The Locust. He certainly could have.

No matter. What Chandler gets, he gets right. Marlowe’s Los Angeles is a city of corrupt cops and politicians (like Police Chief “Two Gun” Bill Davis and Mayor Frank Shaw and his brother Joe “The Enforcer” – those aren’t Chandler characters, they were real enough in the 1930s), and mobsters like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky and Mickey Cohen, running the gambling, drugs, and prostitution rackets, and the small-time grifters, the shop girls, and pretty boys who come from all over the country to be famous, to be in the movies, to capture the American Dream.

Little has changed. Davis and Shaw are gone – the city even has a Latino mayor finally – but the cocaine is still in abundance in the Sunset Strip clubs, and the prostitutes stroll nightly on Santa Monica Boulevard. The LAPD may not be as corrupt, but a recent federal bust of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department found wide-spread abuse of prisoners and rampant drug-dealing in Men’s Central Jail downtown – all of it being done by the sheriffs.

Bugsy Siegel – who said about gangland murders, “We only kill each other” – and Mickey Cohen are history, but now Russian gangs battle it out, and kill each other regularly over in East Hollywood, while the Bloods and Crips have been fighting their turf wars in South L.A. for decades.

And every day the prettiest girls from Pittsburgh, or Portland, or Peoria, get off the bus, or the plane, or the train to become movie stars, or TV stars, while the boys coax their battered over-packed cars up the ramps from the Hollywood Freeway, coming from Denver or Dallas or Duluth, to make it as rock stars, or stand-up comics, or on the next big reality show. They just want to become rich and famous. And the grifters and hustlers and con artists are waiting for them.


When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the ground swell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Blvd., and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy car tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped and murdered. People were hungry, sick, bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.

(The Long Goodbye 1954)






Thorpe, Edward, Chandlertown: The Los Angeles of Philip Marlowe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, hard cover, 1983)

Silver, Alain, and Ward, Elizabeth, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles (New York: The Overlook Press, 1987)

Gross, Miriam, ed. The World of Raymond Chandler (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977)

Brother-Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac, and the Beat Generation

We recently passed a watershed moment in modern American literature, as November, 2012, marked sixty years since John Clellon Holmes introduced the term “Beat Generation” in the New York Times Magazine.

To many, this is the sum of all Holmes is known for. Continue Reading…

The Voice is All: Joyce Johnson Talks about Her Latest Book

Joyce Johnson’s role in Beat history is too often viewed simply as that of Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend. There is surprise when one first learns that she was a novelist in her own right and at the disdain for her position as a scholar of the Beat Generation. She is derided as “milking” her brief relationship with Kerouac. The irony is that her book, Minor Characters, brought to light some of the experiences of the women of the Beat Generation, and the extent to which they have been marginalized.

Continue Reading…

Jack Kerouac’s Poetry—Where is the Gold, if There’s Gold?

This paper is a short inquiry into the quality of Jack Kerouac’s poetry. Kerouac is an American writer who has maintained an enduring hold on succeeding generations of readers through his long prose works, such as On the Road and The Dharma Bums.  He wrote numerous books of poetry, approaching the art seriously and passionately. Many of his poetry manuscripts, unable to find a home while he was alive, have been published since his death in 1969. Continue Reading…

American Zen

Zen Buddhism is nearly impossible to write about. The use of words and logic to explain Zen are in opposition to its nature, one free of such restrictions. The question then arises: how can we know the principles of Zen if we can’t directly talk about them? The solution is that we study the principals of Zen, which are contrivances, to forget them in order to move closer to Zen. The point of such a contradictory exercise is to provide a base from which we practice zazen[1] in order to shed away our dualistic ways of thought and proceed towards Satori[2], or Zen enlightenment. This is at the core of the Zen Buddhist practice and was central to the Buddhist influenced work of the Beat Generation writers Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Jackson Mac Low. These writers used Zen Buddhism as an influence to present a countercultural Zen aesthetic that frees the reader from the mainstream materialistic culture by exemplifying what an understanding of a truer nature of existence or satori-like experience might look like with poems that mirror the meditative practice of zazen. Ginsberg’s “Last Night in Calcutta” synthesizes Zen enlightenment while Snyder’s “Riprap” and Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” provide us with zazen meditative “kôans” to contemplate. These poems are awakenings that transcend the dualistic and show us how we can arrive at a deeply realized nature of existence.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Last Night In Calcutta” begins: “Still night./ The old Clock ticks,/ half past two. A ringing of crickets/ awake in the ceiling. The gate is locked/on the street outside–sleepers, mustaches,/nakedness,/but no desire. A few mosquitoes/waken the itch, the fan turns slowly–/a car thunders along the black asphalt,/a bull snorts, something is expected–/Time sits solid in the four yellow walls.” (1-11) The opening phrase “Still night” frames the poem and the quietude of this opening utterance accomplishes two things: it centers the poem in the present, and invites us into Ginsberg’s zazen meditation. The lines that follow further establish this work as a meditation. The poet’s perception of his surrounding, the “old clock ticks…a ringing of crickets/ awake in the ceiling,” show him embarking on his meditation and exemplify his opening of “the hand of thought” through zazen practice. These lines are fixed in Calcutta, May 22, 1963, and present a grounded immediacy. This is what is, there is no construction, no imposition, these lines are and “time sits solid in the four yellow walls” of this place.

This opening initiates the zazen meditation and becomes more deeply entranced in Zen with the twelfth and thirteenth lines that read, “No one is here, emptiness filled with train/ whistles & dog barks, answered a block away.” (12-13) The statement is curious. If no one is here, who is writing the poem? The disintegration of the ego, of “I”, is essential in Zen, and for man to move closer to satori he must not suffer under the imposition of selfhood. Ginsberg is exercising this freedom, removing signs of egotism and self in order to get to the true nature of existence. We must note that Ginsberg, quite a self referential, does not use any personal pronouns in this poem and this is a testament to this poem’s Zen aesthetic. These selfless lines drive the poem deeper into zazen and set the poem in orbit around a possible satori state of transcendence.

The rest of the poem hovers around the Zen principal of satori and shows what this awakening to the nature of existence might look like. Ginsberg shows us that his meditation reshapes his understanding of existence and delivers him to a higher understanding through Zen. This epiphany is exemplified in the thirty-sixth line of the poem: “Skin is sufficient to be skin, that is all.” The realization that skin is skin shows the new way of thought achievable through enlightenment. This line is a shedding of meaning and focuses on the true nature of existence through Zen as being one that is inexplicable. This poem encapsulates Ginsberg’s aesthetic understanding of Zen and its poetic application. Ginsberg simulates the zazen process for us as readers with this poem and shows us what a satori epiphany looks like.

Gary Snyder’s poem “Riprap” and Jackson Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” are both Zen poems that provide us with “riprap” of our own on our journey towards satori. Snyder’s and Mac Low’s poems are not exhibitions of satori or an awakened state (as we saw with Ginsberg’s “Last Night in Calcutta”) but instead they are kôans that are meant to provide us with meditations that contribute to our Zen practice. We must quickly define “Kôan” and “Riprap” so that we may understand how these poets use these ideas in their poems. A “kôan” is a fundamental part of Zen Buddhism; it is a story, dialogue, question, or statement provided by a Zen master for a student to meditate on during zazen. A kôan is meant to transcend rational thought moving one closer to an intuitive state on the way to satori. “Riprap” is loosely defined as a set of stones one lies down on as a path to create traction, and we can see how a kôan might be considered a mental riprap of sorts. The concept of both of these poems, as kôans that provide us as readers with riprap, creates a framework into which we may understand the Zen aesthetic Mac Low and Snyder employ.

Snyder’s poem “Riprap” opens with the lines, “Lay down these words/ before your mind like rocks.” (1-2) This is an invitation. The poem is presented as a kôan with these lines, and Snyder is asking us to use this poem as “riprap” for our own personal zazen exercise. Snyder, like a Zen master, guides us through a meditation: “place [these words] solid, by hands/ in choice of place, set before the body of the mind in space and time:” (3-6) This instruction ends with a colon and the poem then lists what we are to “set before the body of the mind” to meditate on in this kôan. Snyder lists, “Solidity of bark, lead, or wall/ riprap of things:/ Cobble of milky way,/ straying planets/ these poems, people.” (7-11) The solidities in the first line send us into contemplation on the categorization of things and attempts to strip the meaning from this duality through juxtaposition. We are challenged to question this quality of things as “solid.” The list of “milky way” “straying planets” “poems” and “people” presents another set of comparisons. Snyder’s kôan poem induces a zazen state that forces us question the linguistic duality or separation of things, and we can’t help but meditate on the question: are we part of the Milky Way, a straying planet, a person, or are we poems? Finishing this poem we come to question the initial invitation of “laying down these words” and sit with the kôan contemplating if these words are riprap from which we gain a footing on our Zen way, or are we meant to lie down and forget the words that make us this poem.

Jackson Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” is a kôan that invites us into contemplation like the poem “Riprap” by Gary Snyder. The fundamental difference between Snyder’s poem and Mac Low’s is that “1st Dance” is more obtuse and lacks the instructive quality seen in Snyder’s poem. “1st Dance”, from the collection The Pronouns, opens with the pronoun “He.”(1) This is quite different from Ginsberg’s pronounless “Last Night in Calcutta” and Snyder’s use of the possessive “your” in “Riprap.” Mac Low’s use of the indefinite pronoun creates an ambiguity not present in the other poems. We immediately begin to question who “He” is. The poem then proceeds with a series of surrealistic images of what “He” does. The first two lines read, “He makes himself comfortable/ & matches parcels.” What does Mac Low mean by “matches parcels?” There is an inherent contradiction in “matching” or bringing together in pairs and “parceling” or dividing into portions. The lines that follow also stultify. Mac Low writes in lines 6-7, “Soon after, he’s giving cushions or seeming to do so,/ taking opinions” and we are left to wonder what this means. These lines act, just as Snyder’s poem, as a kôan, but are more perplexing because of these strange images that clear our mind and break down our categorized thought.

Mac Low ends the poem with, “A little while later he gets out with things/ & finally either rewards someone for something or goes up under/ something.” (15-17) and these final lines are an ambiguous riddle which sends us into a state of zazen that transcends rational thought. There is less invitation and instruction here compared with Snyder’s “Riprap” and Mac Low seems less of a Zen master and more of a Zen practitioner. Mac Low pushes with this poem towards the transcendence of dualistic meaning and both ushers us and forces himself along on the journey towards satori. This poem offers a pure Zen aesthetic that initially confounds but hidden deep within it is the possibility of eventual satori state of enlightenment.

There are a few problems regarding these poems as Zen poems that we must confront. Zen Buddhism is a laborious task. There are no quick roads in Zen. In the early 1950’s, D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts popularized the principles of Zen in the Western world, and made them seem quickly accessible to all and any, (these poets are adapting Zen from what they learned from Watts and Suzuki and these poems make Zen seem extremely accessible.) This claim for Zen as accessible to all is not the case. Zen is something you dedicate your life to, that you must practice rigorously each day. Zazen is an especially painstaking activity of thousands of hours of meditation in order that one might come close to satori, while knowing quite well that they might never achieve this understanding. If this is the case, why do Ginsberg, Snyder and Mac Low write these poems that synthesize the zazen meditation? The answer is that these poets are showing us how this Zen process works and are using the zazen meditation and the kôan as a framework to present a poetic counter-reality that uses Buddhism as an aesthetic principal. This type of poem allows Ginsberg to show us what satori might look like, and for Snyder and Mac Low to help us on our way by providing meditative kôans. These poems invite the reader into a zazen state that opens his eyes to question: how can we transcend rational thought, break free of mainstream materialistic culture, and get closer to understanding the true nature of existence? These men show us this is possible, and that the Zen way is the road that will get us there even if it is not true to the sense of Zen, but instead what we then must call “American Zen.”


1. Zazen is the Buddhist meditative practice of “opening the hand of thought.”  This is done while sitting and allowing the mind to become unhindered by its many layers.  When this is achieved the experience gives way to an insight into the nature of existence and the individual then gains satori or enlightenment.


2. Satori refers to the “enlightenment” or individual awakening to a world that transcends the dualistic mind and deeply realizes the nature of existence as it is achieved through Zen.


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This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #12. You can buy it on Amazon (as a paperback or ebook).

Somebody Blew Up America: A Conversation with Amiri Baraka

This interview originally appeared in Beatdom #12 – the CRIME issue. You can purchase it on Amazon and Kindle.


Amiri Baraka is Beat.

He walked away from the scene in Greenwich Village, where he edited literary journals Yugen, Kulchur, and The Floating Bear from 1958-65. Working with Hettie Cohen, Michael John Fles, and Diane Di Prima, respectively, the journals brought new works by new names. Featured writers included Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Whalen, and Michael McClure. He co-founded Totem Press and was influential in the launching of Corinth Books. Yugen magazine was perhaps most significant as the platform for the “new” Beat writers, allowing their work to find a place in one of the first venues to give credulity to the movement. Continue Reading…

The Beat Rap Sheet

But yet, but yet, woe, woe unto those who think that the Beat Generation means crime, delinquency, immorality, amorality … woe unto those who attack it on the grounds that they simply don’t understand history and the yearning of human souls … woe in fact unto those who those who make evil movies about the Beat Generation where innocent housewives are raped by beatniks! … woe unto those who spit on the Beat Generation, the wind’ll blow it back. — Jack Kerouac Continue Reading…