Larry Beckett is generally best-known as a songwriter, yet probably better known to Beatdom readers as the author of Beat Poetry – the first book entirely devoted to the poetry of the Beat Generation. Yet he has devoted much of his life to writing poetry, and earlier this year he released an impressive book called Paul Bunyan through Smokestack Books in the UK.
Paul Bunyan is part of Beckett’s American Cycle series of “long poems” concerning junctures in American history. In an interview with Shindig! Magazine, he explained:
When I started reading American literature, I looked around for its great narrative epic poem, and didn’t find it. So American Cycle is a sequence of long poems out of the American past: US Rivers: Highway 1, Old California, Paul Bunyan, Chief Joseph, Wyatt Earp, PT Barnum, Amelia Earhart, Blue Ridge, US Rivers: Route 66. I’ve been working on it for 45 years; I’m now doing research for the last section, John Henry. Each section is written in a form appropriate to its subject. Its themes are love, local mythology, history, justice, memory, accomplishment, time.
In this case he brings to life the mythical giant lumberjack, Paul Bunyan, in a journey from Maine to Oregon, heading west as did the frontier of the United States.
The story of Paul Bunyan may not be familiar to non-American readers, so I shall explain briefly: In the 19th century, American lumberjacks travelled around the North American continent, moving from camp to camp. With them they took stories – some of which included a giant called Paul Bunyan, who moved about with his blue ox, Babe. These stories made their way from logger camps to the American public conscious in the 20th century, and have, in their way, helped shape American identity. Big and brash, Paul Bunyan embodied frontier spirit.
Beckett has crafted a story that wanders freely through its blank verse form from one end of the continent to the other. He speaks with a voice as big as America, of a giant larger even than the Paul Bunyan the logging camps knew, who held a shotgun with barrels taller than chimneys. He has brought an inventiveness that has long been missing from the legends, reinvigorating the old tale.
The Paul Bunyan story grew from American folklore and existed long before it was ever written down. Fittingly, the book comes with a CD recording of Beckett performing Paul Bunyan live.