The Beats as we know them are a New York City phenomena and walk hand in hand with Abstract Expressionism as one of the great defining moments of art in the second half of the 20th century. Just like Jackson Pollock and William DeKooning were all about reinterpreting what painting meant, so the Beats were trying to redefine linguistics in a way that made poetry and prose contemporary, or at least brought it up to date from the days of the Lost Generation, who expatriated to Paris after World War I. The Beats were the fallout of the existential crisis brought on by the nuclear bomb, and a seminal Beat poem by Gregory Corso called “Bomb” appeared on the page in the form of a mushroom cloud. The Beats were interested in writing from their wits and believed the concept of “first thought was the best thought,” even though they may not have lived by this credo it was a defining trait of their aesthetic stance. It was similar to an Abstract Expressionist looking for a perfect stroke on the canvas that somehow said everything about an internally troubled excited knowable state, even if he/she worked on the painting for weeks, months, or years. The goal of both movements, along with Be-Bop, was to express a moment of feeling without being restricted in time, even if this took years of practice. It might seem a quaint idea from a 2015 perspective but art was very tied to rules when the Beats wrote to the rhythm of their breath, or to the sounds of Charlie Parker’s alto sax, and it was a revolutionary act that scared a lot of critics and aesthetes into thinking the Beats were turning back the clock on poetry and were like modern day Neanderthals rather than the greatest minds of their generation. Yet that’s an image they would’ve been proud of in their inner circle, just like the Abstract Expressionists wanted to get back to primal thinking. The Beats were audacious but demanded to be taken seriously, which is probably why they earned the moniker of angry young men. Continue Reading…
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October 7th, 1955, was arguably one of the most important dates in American literature. On that date, in a “run down second rate experimental art gallery” (a former auto repair shop) in San Francisco, in a room crowded with a hundred young men and women, Allen Ginsberg read for the first time an early draft of his poem, “Howl.” Among the bohemian audience was the poem’s future publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who immediately recognized its potential, and requested the manuscript. “Howl” would go on to become the most important poem of the late-twentieth century and, alongside T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” perhaps the most important of the entire century. It would challenge America’s censorship laws, inspire unprecedented cultural and social change, and give the country its most recognizable and influential poet since Walt Whitman. Continue Reading…
By Michelle Rudolf
From Beatdom #14
The 2010 movie, Howl, an adaptation of Allen Ginsberg’s classic Beat poem, by Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein was largely successful because it involved approaches to adapting an artistic work that are uncommon in filmmaking. The directors had studied Ginsberg’s life, the process of writing the poem, and what happened in the aftermath of its publication, and ultimately succeeded in creating a unique and satisfying adaptation based upon a hybridization of the above elements, rather than a straight cinematic telling of the poem’s story or message. Additionally, heavy research resulted in an accuracy that made this Beat movie a more faithful representation than others. As a result, their interpretation has been better received than adaptations of the work of Ginsberg’s peers, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.
It began about nine years ago, when Ginsberg’s estate called the two filmmakers to ask them if they could do a documentary about the poem, because the fiftieth anniversary of its publication was approaching. The estate deliberately chose the pair because of their reputation as in-depth documentary producers who had received many awards for their sensitive and intelligent approaches to the subject matter of their movies. Moreover, in this case their own homosexuality allowed them to understand the social pressures Ginsberg had to suffer. Friedman and Epstein are famous for their lifetime’s work, which includes films about homosexual characters, including Epstein’s groundbreaking documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.
Howl is centered on the poem both representationally and factually. In different sequences the viewer is presented with both historical context and biographical details about Ginsberg’s life at the time of the poem’s composition. Throughout, James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg in a role that features the poet as an adventurer of the counterculture and chronicler of the Beat Generation. Franco had always been a huge fan of Ginsberg, and even though he knew certain things about the counterculture and Ginsberg, he renewed his interest and embarked upon a period of private research in order to find out about Ginsberg’s gestures, his mannerism, and his rhythm of speech at the time of the publication of Howl. Though some argue that Franco does not look like Ginsberg, in the movie he talks and moves and delivers the content just like Ginsberg did.
Right at the start of the project their plan was to do only a documentary on Ginsberg, but after they recorded several interviews with the poet’s friends and lovers, they realized that everyone talked about Ginsberg as he was in his 40s and 50s. It seemed to them as if no one remembered who he really was at the time he wrote Howl. That is why they changed their plan and deliberately fused the documentary style of filmmaking together with a reenactment of the past events in Ginsberg’s life, including animated sequences. The result was a film that was practically its own new genre.
The film consists of five different sections. One section is the trial of the poem’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was indicted for distributing and publishing obscene work. The trial sequences of the film are based on the actual transcript of the trial, and so, although the scene is played out with actors, it retains its historical accuracy. For this section, they took the actual words spoken in court and, although it was edited and rearranged somewhat, the trial is faithfully depicted. Another section of the film produces a nostalgic image showing Ginsberg writing the poem on his old black typewriter, writing with his confessional, leave-nothing-out style, recounting his road trips and love affairs in search of liberation. The third section of the film is animated by Eric Drooker and Russell Barnes. Drooker’s work was collected by Ginsberg for over a decade, and so the producers thought Ginsberg would approve of Drooker’s animation style.
This animated section, which was both daring and effective in capturing the spirit of Ginsberg’s generation-defining cry, was included as there was a lack of footage of Ginsberg during that period. To a great degree, the animation lives in the film as a kind of modernized retelling of the poem, as it is the interpretation of the poem through imagery. The animation department did not want to literally illustrate what Ginsberg was talking about in the poem, even though it is obvious at times. According to John Hays, the head of animation, they tried to replicate the feeling of the fifties and what musicians, painters, sculptures, and writers were trying to do at that time.
In the fourth section of the film, Ginsberg is shown at his first public reading of the poem. Of course, this is the famous Six Gallery Reading, which turned Ginsberg into a celebrity overnight. His reading of Howl caused a sensation and earned its place in literary history. A modern audience had never before reacted so passionately. The filmmakers created this sequence as truthfully as they could by using the information they gathered from interviews they conducted with eyewitnesses, and also from the works of people like Jack Kerouac, who were in attendance and had previously described the evening. For this section, accurate research was imperative. James Franco wears the same kind of clothes in it as Ginsberg did and the people in the audience drink out of the same kind of bottle as the audience had done.
The final section of the film is a kind of flashback, an interview about Howl and the monologue Ginsberg gave to answer the question, “What makes good poetry?” In fact, this interview, which they used as the basis of the frame, is a fabled Time magazine interview. Time magazine had once flown Ginsberg from Tangiers to Rome, where a reporter recorded the interview in a hotel room. The interview was never published and so it proved the perfect device to drive the film. Friedman and Epstein let Ginsberg speak for himself to the audience out of the past, as they put together their favorite excerpts from this and other interviews from that period of time into a long defense of him, his generation, and his work.
Throughout the movie, the filmmakers, as documentarians, were concerned with accurately telling Ginsberg’s story, and so despite their unique blend of devices as described above for each section of the movie, Epstein and Friedman made sure that they didn’t just tell the story of Howl, but that they passed along its feeling and message, and took the audience back to the 1950s. The production designer, Thérèse DePrez, decorated Ginsberg’s room in the film with pictures of his close friends, and with furniture pieces of the thirties and forties that he owned. She even used the same desk lamp he owned, and wallpaper that matched with the photographs she found of his old apartment. In the courtroom sequence DePrez used the same light bulbs used back then.
Howl had its world premiere at the opening night of the Sundance film festival after the producers had gone through the struggle of making a film that would create something worthy of Ginsberg’s almost magical work. As with the recent release of On the Road, fans largely waited for a disastrous end product. They were, however, shocked to encounter a genuinely entertaining and informative movie. Through the right combination of filmmakers, and a delicate and unique balance of approaches, the movie version of Howl has become its own masterpiece – capturing the spirit and factual tidbits surrounding the poem that inspired it, yet at the same time decidedly different.
Date accessed: 10.10.2011
Epstein, Rob and Friedman, Jeffrey. Howl film. Making of Featurette. Soda Pictures Ltd. Artwork 2011
Fish, Stanley. ‘‘Literary Criticism Comes to the Movies’’. The New York Times (October 4, 2010)
Ginsberg, Allen. ‘’This is the Abomination’’. Columbia Review vol. 26 (May 1946), p. 162.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl And Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg. San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1956.
http://howlthemovie.com/poem/. Date accessed: 10.10.2011
Kramer, Jane. Allen Ginsberg in America. New York, Random House, 1970.
Sandhu, Sukhdev. ‘‘Howl, review’’. The Daily Telegraph (February 24, 2011).
Simpson, Louis. Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. London, Macmillan, 1978.
Ritch, Ruby. ‘‘Ginsberg’s Howl resounds on film’’. The Guardian (January 19, 2010).
A couple of days ago, Michael Stipe took the stage to introduce a night of celebrations of the life of Kurt Cobain and the music of his band, which arguably was a 1990s updated upon the Beat Generation, and gave a beautiful speech, dedicated “for the fags; for the fat girls; for the broken toys; the shy nerds; the Goth kids from Tennessee and Kentucky; for the rockers and the awkward; for the fed-up; the too-smart kids and the bullied.”
He went on to say, “We were a community, a generation… in the echo chamber of that collective howl, and Allen Ginsberg would have been very proud.”
Indeed, Ginsberg would’ve been very proud. Nirvana came about, as Stipe said, at a time when people lost within a harsh society were in need of a voice. Where Ginsberg gave his voice to the millions in the fifties and sixties, Nirvana lent theirs to disaffected kids (and adults) in the nineties.
It seems sometimes silly to speculate upon what the dead would think of the living, but in this case it’s hard to imagine a man with a heart like Ginsberg’s not empathizing with today’s downtrodden.
The whole speech is worth listening to, but if you can’t be fucked, skip to 5:26.
In 1957 Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky were in the midst of the obscenity trials in the US surrounding the publication of Ginsberg’s poem Howl. After being shunned by the clean-cut conservative American public, (who despised homosexuality and Ginsberg’s outspoken nature in the radicalised work) the pair went left to seek refuge in more liberal and artistic France. Eventually the couple sought exile with fellow Beat poet Gregory Corso in their very own sanctuary of creativity which happened to be a no-name, beaten-up hotel at 9 Rue Gît-Le-Coeur in the Latin quarter of Paris. The cheap and tacky hotel was later to be christened the Beat hotel by Corso.
The rent at the 42 roomed hotel cost as little as 10 francs a night with the cheapest rooms containing a single bed that had two sheets and a army blanket, radiator, cold-water tap, small table and chairs, and three hooks. The rooms and hallways were dimly lit and the bedrooms had a small window facing the stairwell. The other rooms that were slightly more pleasant then the cheaper ones included such commodities as a telephone and a gas cooker, but the hotel owner, Madame Rachou, was very particular about who stayed. She didn’t mind if they were gay or in interracial relationships and she particularly liked the open-minded creative sorts – she even allowed artists and writers to pay in the form of manuscripts and artwork and she would allow inventive artists to paint and decorate their rooms how ever so they wished.
Other people that also stayed at the 9 Rue Gît-Le-Coeur residence were the likes of prostitutes, erratic poets, oddball French folks, pimps and also policemen (certain police officers even had a secret mistress that stayed in the hotel).
Despite the owner’s well-wishes and good nature, the hotel was still known as a “Class 13” – meaning it was bottom of the heap, just a pure sight of decrepitude and disrepair. A minor bonus that the hotel did offer was the privilege of hot water which was offered on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, as well as a bath in the only bathtub that was situated on the ground floor. The ground floor close to the lobby and near the bar was where the Beat writers spent most of their time drinking, smoking, eating, and conversing while Madame Rouche prepared sandwiches for the police and the officers in turn would pay no attention to the scent of hashish that drifted around the bar area.
Rue Gît-Le-Coeur on left bank in the 50s was a lively happening place that bustled with bohemian students, destitute winos, and ladies of the night as the Louvre, Notre Dame cathedral, and Fontaine Saint-Michel provided a fine view in the backdrop. As the narrow streets housed the homeless sleeping wherever they could, the hotel accommodation that surrounded the pathways sheltered writers, musicians, artists, and models that came from the nearby school of fine arts known as the École Nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. It wasn’t only hotels in the district of Rue Gît-Le-Coeur. The tiny medieval region also had a vast array of dusty book shops, antiques shops, art galleries, avant-garde publishing houses and small presses, art cafes as well as drug dealers dealing in broad daylight in the cafes.
In 1956 William S. Burroughs attempted to cure his drug addiction with the help of London physician John Dent. After completion of the treatment he moved to the Beat Hotel to join his friends. Burroughs moved under the recommendation of Allen Ginsberg as Ginsberg thought it would help his friend escape the heroin scene. At the hotel Burroughs began writing patchy, disconnected, and hallucinatory manuscripts that would later become apart of his novel Naked Lunch. Although Burroughs had the help of Ginsberg and Kerouac to edit the novel it too fell to the same ill-fate of Ginsberg’s Howl as it was called upon by the US obscenity trials in the 60s.
He was also introduced to the Dada art technique of cut-up writing by English born artist, writer and sound poet Brion Gysin as Gysin stumbled upon the style by pure accident when the pair wrote together in room number fifteen in the spring of 1958. Burroughs took this method one step further and began cutting up photographs and artwork. This cut-up technique, which could be said to have been invented by Tristan Tzara in the late 1920s, involved cutting sections of writing out of newspaper then putting then them back together in new and creative ways. Whilst staying at the hotel from 1959 to 1963 Harold Norse also experimented with the cut-up style whilst he penned his 280 page novel called The Beat Hotel.
Brion Gysin moved to Paris in 1934 where he studied the open course La Civilisation Française at the Sorbonne University, an academy that wasn’t too far from the Beat Hotel. His most famous creation at the hotel was in the early 1960s with fellow creator Ian Somerville called the Dream Machine. The creation which was the only piece of art that can be viewed with your eyes closed and is meant to stimulate the brain’s alpha patterns with rhythmic strobing light effects thus producing a natural high. The device is a large piece of cardboard with slits down the side and spun on a gramophone turntable. In the middle a light bulb hangs down to the centre creating a flicker effect as the machine spins. The pair had calculated it to flicker at fifteen flickers per second resulting in a type of hypnotic trance-like state. The device seemed to take off as people began to take notice and the creators were due to market their work as a representative turned up at the hotel, but as luck would have it the rep ended up breaking his leg in the hallway which ended with the creation never seeing the light of day.
As the years passed the beats were beginning to be noticed on the international scene as word spread across the globe that the wonderful, tiny, wild, and heavily neglected hotel in France was the place to be and from the years 1957 to 1963 Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Burroughs, Corso, and Sommerville were joined by other imaginative creators from England and Europe. The Beat Generation had officially taken over the Latin Quarter of Paris, creating a symbolic freedom of mind, a simple atmosphere where they could escape the troubles of their homelands in a place that was much more tolerant of anything written or in the visual arts. France in that time was way ahead of up-tight countries like England and America. Although the Beats couldn’t actually speak a word of French they did have in their group the French artist, poet, publisher, and activist Jean-Jacques Lebel who they would use as their go-between. Label also introduced the group to the Partisan art community that included the likes of Marcel Duchamp and André Breton.
Great works of poetic art was also being produced at the hotel as Ginsberg started work on his second poem Kaddish and Gregory Corso created some of his most famous works whilst living in the hotel’s attic like his controversial piece called Bomb that was written in the shape of a mushroom cloud.
English photographer Harold Chapman spent a year living in the attic with Corso, documenting photo-by-photo the scene that was happening around him. According to Ginsberg Chapman didn’t speak to anyone for two years because he wanted to be invisible – transcribing the environment without him in it. Chapman came up with the idea of making a photographic book called My Paris whilst working as a waiter in Soho. After hitchhiking to Paris a friend told him that he must see this crazy hotel in the area and was later introduced to Ginsberg and Orlovsky, the rest was to be photographic history.
By the time the trial for Naked Lunch ended in the early 60s (resulting with the novel being made example of and prosecuted for being too obscene by the state of Massachusetts followed by other states in the US and the rest of the world) the Beat Hotel ceased to be as Madame Rachou retired in 1963. Harold Chapman was the last person to leave.
Nowadays the tramps that covered the streets of Rue Gît-Le-Coeur are gone, the prostitutes that hung around the wine bars have moved on, and those bohemian types have been replaced with camera-snapping American, English, and other Western world tourists that have now taken over the place. Rue Gît-Le-Coeur is now a tourist destination and the time of the beat generation has long since died a creative death. ‘Ci-Gît’ is an old expression found on French graves meaning ‘here lies’ and Rue Gît-Le-Coeur is said to signify ‘here lies the heart’, yet all that stands at once the heart of the beat movements Beat hotel (which this isn’t even the Beat hotel, the original Beat hotel has been closed for decades the one that it’s actually placed against use to be an apartment building) is a bronze plaque with the words: B. Gysin, N. Norse, G. Corso, A. Ginsberg, P. Orlovsky, I. Sommerville and W. Burroughs scrawled across it like some gravestone reminder of what was once a artistic environment.
While the name Herbert Huncke may not be well-known among the general population, it is certainly familiar to readers of the Beat Generation. You simply cannot tell the life story of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, or Jack Kerouac without it, and he appears quite obviously in some of their most important works, including Junky, On the Road, and “Howl.” These three writers, among the most important in American literature, each befriended Huncke, learned from him, and came to be known by a label that was coined by him – “beat”.
What is amazing is that until now, Huncke’s own story has gone largely untold. Ask most Beat readers about him and they’ll tell you a few repeated phrases: “career criminal,” “hustler,” “drug addict.” He has become a perennial footnote in Beat history, despite having played such a significant role that one would expect his name to be on the tip of as many tongues as Neal Cassady’s. The two men appear to have played similar roles – as deviant muses, unexpected sources of literary material, and also seemingly morally-challenged nuisances.
Yet while Cassady has long been known as Dean Moriarty, the wildman with the motor-mouth, inspiration behind one of the great American novels, Huncke has been sidelined until now. American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired The Beat Generation is the first biography of Huncke, who died in 1996. He managed to write an autobiography, which was posthumously published by friends with the 1997 Herbert Huncke Reader, but this is the first serious effort to examine his life, and as such is an important addition to the Beat literary canon.
From the start, it feels odd reading about Huncke as you would any other important figure in literature. He is so commonly presented as a device – the hip bad guy who turns the real writers onto his mischievous underground ways – it is strange to read about his family history, and his childhood. Indeed, imagining Huncke as a child with a mother and father is quite jarring. This effect is perhaps exaggerated thanks to the author’s choice of introducing the twelve-year old runaway Huncke first and foremost, in the Prologue. She tells the story of Huncke’s attempt at running away, giving someone a blowjob in exchange for money, and then finally being arrested and returned home. This is the tragic Huncke to whom we are to be introduced later.
We are presented with a short description of his childhood, during which time it seems that both Huncke and the writer are keen to get on the road, to get away from being tied down to parents and school. There is the sense that he is meant for the big city, be it Chicago or New York, and always the idea that he will later turn into the man who has been kindly described as a “career criminal” with his own questionable moral compassing. Of particular interest is a charming story of his obsession with a Native American legend that foreshadows his own hobo wanderings.
Altogether, American Hipster is a welcome addition to Beat studies. Well researched and written at a good pace, it really brings light to the life of a pivotal character in American literature.
 The book appears sometimes to be titled “the life of”, which sounds better, but this reviewer’s copy says “a life of”
Howls of 9/11 attacks
Moloch skyscrapers stood looming monstrously large
Crowning the shining Battery of Manhattan
Two planes crashed south and north towers
Screeched morning sirens through city streets
Ignited jet fuel fireball syringe
Raging inferno, heat intense heat 2500 degrees Fahrenheit
Four winged horsemen
Terror, waken nightmare, hellish hallucinations
Heavy black mushroom squibs
Giant ash avalanche
Cascaded down Wall Street
Rained near Whitman’s Bridge
Wailed back to Hoboken and Weehawken
Wailed over the Hudson to New Jersey
Wailed in Long Island, Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island
Jumped off screaming rooftops in bright clear sun
Cried seraphim and cherubim
Twin towers collapsed by suicide river
Left broken hearts
Released broken spirits
Mountains of idiot destruction
Melted steel and rubble
Cemeteries covered in Dostoevsky dust
Workers fell, jumped, leaped
We the people wept
Bended knees in cathedrals
Twisted metal beams
Exploded yellow red glare
Planes burst in blue air, over and over and over on television screens throughout the world
And in minds
Sage poet, to whom weeping came easily, you died in time
We felt your salty tears
And lost fragile flower power
Today, June 3rd, is Allen Ginsberg’s birthday. All around the world, people are raising a glass or otherwise celebrating the life and work of this great man.
In China, a country not known for its freedom of speech, Ginsberg’s epic poem, “Howl”, will be given its first bilingual public reading. There aren’t many English language links for this event, but here’s one. And here’s the cool poster to accompany it:
The Chinese social network, Sina Weibo, has a lot of information and translations of Ginsberg’s work in celebration of his birthday. Check out this post by Beatdom editor, David S. Wills, for more information.
“What are you rebelling against?” the local girl asks one of the “saintly motorcyclists” in the
1953 movie The Wild One, and Marlon Brando drawls, “Whaddaya got?” That’s a biography in
brief of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who revolutionized literature and then abandoned it at
He was born October 20, 1854, in Charleville, France. When he was six, his father, Capt. Frederic Rimbaud, left his wife, two sons, two daughters, and “walked beyond the mountain, like / a thousand angels parting on the road.” Life with his hard mother was no good: “from her summit / of righteousness, she could not see the boy” (from “Nostalgia” and “The Poet at Seven”, from Imitations, a collection of translations by Robert Lowell). He started writing poetry at eleven, was a remarkable student for eight years, and published a poem at sixteen. He ran away repeatedly – at first he was hauled back, and then he retreated to his mother’s farm. He rejected God, the army, and his mother. He embraced filth, drugs, obscenity. He wrote the famous sea poem, The Drunken Boat, without having seen the sea. In Paris, he lived off friends, starting with the symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, who was ten years older. They became lovers, hanging out in cafés, where Rimbaud shocked or insulted all the writers and artists in Verlaine’s circle with his arrogance. Rimbaud rejected all French literature except, with reservations, Racine and Baudelaire. At a poetry reading, he said “shit” after every line.
He travelled with Verlaine in Belgium and England till their affair ended when Rimbaud walked out on the drunk and sentimental poet, who shot at him three times, hitting him in the wrist. Rimbaud tried to get the charges dropped, but Verlaine was sentenced to prison for two years of hard labor. Rimbaud went home to his mother and, in the barn, wrote A Season in Hell, his incomparable confessional prose poem. He published it, sent copies to Paris, and was disillusioned when he was snubbed there as both man and artist. In Charleville, he burned his manuscripts, letters, and author’s copies of the book.
In a letter to Paul Demeny, he said, “Inventions of the unknown demand new forms,” and he started writing Illuminations, which, preceded by Aloysius Bertrand’s fables in Gaspard de la Nuit, and Charles Baudelaire’s meditations in Paris Spleen, and influenced by Judith Gautier’s loose translations of the Chinese poets Li Po and Tu Fu in Le Livre du Jade, are the first true prose poems.
In every edition of Illuminations published since 1886, “After the Deluge” has been placed first, introducing the central themes of subsequent poems. It began,
As soon as the idea of the Deluge had subsided,
A hare stopped in the clover and swaying flowerbells, and said a prayer to the rainbow, through the spider’s web.
Oh! the precious stones that began to hide,––and the flowers that already looked around.
In the dirty main street, stalls were set up and boats were hauled toward the sea, high tiered as in old prints.
Blood flowed at Blue Beard’s,––through slaughterhouses, in circuses, where the windows were blanched by God’s seal. Blood and milk flowed.
The ‘Deluge’ is the Flood of the book of Genesis, Chapters Six through Ten, sent by God to punish mankind in its wickedness, and to wash the earth. The poem begins as if it were Chapter Eleven, after not only the flood but the idea of it had subsided, after mankind had forgotten its moral lesson. It opens not with men and women offering thanks to God for surviving, but with a hare praying to the rainbow, the sign of God’s covenant with all flesh. Nature is restored, and is pure: animals are reverent, gems under the earth, flowers on it; but humanity is seen as sliding back into wickedness: the streets are dirty, blood flows, Blue Beard kills, there are slaughterhouses, grieving children, overdone cathedrals, luxury hotels. And so a boy, with the weathervanes magically following him, waves his arms in the rain, as if summoning the storm. The poem ends with the poet learning that it’s spring, season of thawing, and, like the angry God, and the boy commands the waters of the high seas, the bursting rain, the pond, to rise and bring the Flood again, to destroy the unbearable world he knows and doesn’t know, in another apocalypse. In the original and in Varèse’s superb translation, we can hear the rising of the liquid ‘r’ – the sound of the waters.
This reading skirts over the actual poetry, which is remarkable for the way it fails to represent. Poets before Rimbaud would imagine a scene and develop it, incrementally and continuously. “After the Deluge” cuts from a meadow to a village on the coast, then without transition to the Alps, the North Pole, the deserts, the orchard, the budding forest. Where are we? The setting is the whole world. But with hares praying, stones hiding, flowers looking, weather vanes understanding, and the moon listening, it’s not our world but a fictional one. The characters are a monster from a folktale, children in a glass house, the boy in the square, the unnamed Madame, shepherds named for the pastoral poems about them, Eucharis, from the poetic novel The Adventures of Telemachus by François Fénelon, the poet, who suddenly appears, and the Witch. But who are they? Other people aren’t shown, but are implied by their place in society: commerce, they set up stalls; travel, haul boats; culture: install pianos; religion, go to Mass; exploration, join caravans; tourism: build hotels. Their actions are as in dreams. The boats are going towards an ocean that looks like a crude etching. The piano is installed in the mountains. The cathedral has a hundred thousand altars. The caravans set out from nowhere, to nowhere. The hotel is built in the Arctic Circle. The settings are dissociated, as are the characters and the actions, and all are unreal.
Reading the fourth paragraph, after a metaphorical look at the sanctity of nature, with the hare praying, we’re in a coast town, with a fictive-looking ocean, when with “Blood flowed at Blue Beard’s,” we’re in a fairy tale by Charles Perrault, from a book which includes “Sleeping Beauty,” and which can be taken as a metaphor for human vice. Then the blood flows “through slaughterhouses, in circuses” – we’ve left the town and the tale, and entered the world, but when does blood flow in a circus? – “where the windows” – slaughterhouses and circuses with windows into their awful or strange spectacles? – “were blanched by God’s seal” – if the seal is the rainbow, the sign of the covenant after the flood, it’s many-colored; does it pale the windows by being glorious? “Blood and milk flowed” – what milk? Is it flowing where the blood’s flowing? at Bluebeard’s? in the slaughterhouse? inside a child? Each phrase has many possible meanings, but flies away from the others. Tzvetan Todorov, who discovered how to read Rimbaud, defines this discontinuity – “…each word may evoke a representation, but taken together they do not make a whole, and we are thus led to settle for the words.” Rimbaud has reinvented poetry as abstract art.
There’s a parallel in painting, as in the collages of Kurt Schwitters, which use scraps of paper found in the street, and make no attempt to represent reality, only their own internal harmony. In A Season in Hell, Rimbaud proposed a new poetry, inspired not by what was eminent in the past, but by what was scorned: subliterary genres, which occur as collage elements in “After the Deluge.”
A Season in Hell “After the Deluge”
I loved. . .
old inn signs, popular prints; the sea, high tiered as in old prints
antiquated literature, Caravans set out
church Latin, Mass and first communions
erotic books. . . the Queen, the Witch who lights her fire
the novels of our grandfathers, Eucharis told me it was spring
fairytales. . . Blood flowed at Blue Beard’s
Critics with mystical leanings, encouraged by Rimbaud’s saying, “I am working to make myself a seer” and the sense of illumination as enlightenment, have tried to read spiritual meanings into these enigmatic poems, but as Marjorie Perloff, in The Poetics of Indeterminacy, said of a similar misreading, “Nothing in the text…either confirms or refutes this interpretation.” Perloff was developing the ideas of Todorov, who, looking for symbolism in these prose poems, said they were “structurally. . . undecidable, rather like those equations with several unknowns that can have an indefinite number of solutions.“ He reasoned that, “Rimbaud has used the absence of organization as the very principle of organization that governs these texts.” It’s as if the poem is rebelling against itself.
Rimbaud appeals to rebels. Kerouac wrote Rimbaud, a long biographical poem which eventually became a City Lights broadside, alluding to “After the Deluge”:
Study of languages!
On foot Rimbaud walks
& looks thru the Alpine
passes into Italy, looking
for clover bells, rabbits. . .
In his first novel, The Town and the City, he accurately portrayed Allen Ginsberg as carrying “under his arm, the works of Rimbaud.” Ginsberg was obsessed with Rimbaud, including him in the first draft of the “who read…” reading-list line of “Howl.” In his Naropa University lecture on “The History of Poetry,” after quoting and reflecting on “After the Deluge,” he said: “I was in love with Rimbaud. I was, in fact, physically, erotically, in love with Rimbaud when I was eighteen. It was my first…‘Voici le temps des Assassins’ just turned me on completely, and I went downtown to Times Square to meet the local criminals with their ‘pretty Crime howling in the mud of the streets.’”
During the rest of his life, Rimbaud went on the road, as a teacher in England, a student in Germany, a soldier in Java, a circus manager in Sweden, a farm worker in Egypt, a quarry foreman in Cyprus, a coffee exporter in Arabia, and a trader, explorer, and gun-runner in Abyssinia, where he published reports of his travels, and lived with a native girl for one year, and a native boy for eight years. On November 10, 1891, stricken with syphilis and cancer; delirious, paralyzed, his right leg amputated, he died in Marseilles, at the age of thirty-seven.
Critics have called Rimbaud the father of symbolism, antisymbolism, surrealism, primitivism, and existentialism. The prose poet René Char was closer to the truth when he said, “Rimbaud is the first poet of a civilization which hasn’t appeared yet.”
Ginsberg, Allen, “The History of Poetry, Part 15”, 1975
Hackett, C. A., Rimbaud: A Critical Introduction, 1981
Houston, John Porter, The Design of Rimbaud’s Poetry, 1963
Kerouac, Jack, Rimbaud. Scattered Poems, 1971
Perloff, Marjorie, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage, 1981
Rimbaud, Arthur, Illuminations and Other Prose Poems, translated by Louise Varèse, 1957
Rimbaud, Arthur, A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat, translated by Louise Varèse, 1961
Rimbaud, Arthur,Rimbaud Complete, translated by Wyatt Mason, 2002
Starkie, Enid, Arthur Rimbaud, 1961
Todorov, Tzvetan, Genres in Discourse, 1978
Todorov, Tzvetan, Symbolism and Interpretation, 1978
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
The core of the Beat Generation – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs – have often been castigated as privileged kids who slummed it for kicks, essentially pretending to join a lower-class in order to gain something to complain about in their writing. Yet at the height of their fame, there were many who considered them a genuine threat to the morality of America’s youth.
It is certainly true that Burroughs came from a higher social class, and that all of them were superficially enthralled at times, with the criminal underworld; and each of them gained a criminal record in the course of creating a literary movement that was mired in murder and drug use. Most famously, they explored the seedy Times Square scene, celebrating people like career-criminal, Herbert Huncke. In their books, these people became the downtrodden heroes of the street. Petty crime was celebrated, and drugs venerated as an essential component of being hip and having a good time. As a consequence, the Beats became vilified in the press, and their image forever connected to the criminal.
But they were no angels, that’s for sure. Burroughs, the eldest and purportedly the wisest of the Beats, grew up with a sense of alienation and rejection that caused him to seek people with whom he shared something in common. For him, that was an attachment to the criminal underground that he gleaned through reading. Most notably, he took his inspiration from Jack Black’s You Can’t Win, which portrayed a strong set of ethics as existing among criminals, in stark contrast to the morally corrupt code followed by the law.
As a boy his parents had sent him off to the Los Alamos Ranch School, where the spoiled sons of America’s elite were toughened up and turned into real men. Burroughs, however, took the chance to experiment with chloral hydrate, a drug which nearly proved fatal, and landed him in hospital. This was also during Prohibition, and he was picked up by the police whilst drunk.
Burroughs’ psychiatrist, during his early days in New York, referred to his patient in journals as a “gangsterling,” due to the man’s seemingly infantile preoccupation with criminals. Burroughs was fantasizing about robbing Turkish baths and armored trucks, with ludicrously devised plans that would never come to pass.
His real entry to the world of crime came through the friend of a boyfriend, who had a gun he wanted to sell. This was also Burroughs’ first dabbling in hard drugs; along with the gun, came a large quantity of morphine. Burroughs relished the opportunity to sell these items and make shady acquaintances, although he never did sell the gun, and took most of the morphine himself.
The men to whom Burroughs attempted this first arms deal were Phil White and Herbert Huncke. They were experienced criminals and, as Burroughs had hoped, his entry to the underworld. Through these men, Burroughs also met Vickie Russell, “Little Jack” Melody, and Bill Garver, three more criminals who bore striking resemblances to the sort of characters Burroughs adored from You Can’t Win.
When Kerouac and Ginsberg met the man who would become their mentor and friend, he charmed and humbled them with gifts of classic literature. He expanded their minds with poetry and literature and philosophy, and he quoted Shakespeare at length. Yet Burroughs was presently more enamored with pulp crime novels. He was greatly taken by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose gritty depictions of urban violence meshed with his own observations.
Like Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg were looking for experiences that they would not find in their coursework at Columbia University. They wanted their minds opened, and in addition to the books Burroughs bestowed upon them, they soon found themselves sampling various illegal substances, and hanging around with criminal types like Huncke. They never delved as deeply as Burroughs, but nonetheless the experiences were formative.
Perhaps the biggest crime in Beat history, and certainly the best documented, was the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr. Carr was a precocious and obnoxious student. He had known Burroughs in Chicago and became friends with Ginsberg in New York. Kammerer, a much older man, whom Burroughs knew from St. Louis, had an infatuation for Carr that caused him to follow the young man around America. It all ended with Carr stabbing Kammerer in self-defense and rolling his body into the Hudson River.
Carr ran to Burroughs for help, and Burroughs told his friend to turn himself in with the support of a good lawyer. Carr then went to Kerouac, who helped him dispose of the remaining evidence. For their troubles, both Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested when Carr eventually followed Burroughs’ advice and turned himself in. Burroughs’ parents, in what was becoming quite a predictable pattern, came to bail him out, while Kerouac languished in jail, having a somewhat less wealthy and forgiving family.
Despite Carr’s protestations, the event was documented or at least referenced throughout Beat history. Most memorably, it was the subject of Kerouac and Burroughs’ chapter-by-chapter collaborative effort, And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks. In Burroughs’ chapters, the influence of his crime fiction reading is far more apparent than elsewhere in his oeuvre.
Burroughs was spiraling into the criminal world. With Phil White he was robbing drunks on the subway who sometimes woke and turned violent. Eventually White was sent down for killing a man with Burroughs’ gun. Fortunately, as it turned out, Burroughs was picked up for forging a prescription, and the judge sent him home to St. Louis, where his parents attempted to keep him out of trouble.
With Burroughs’ departure, the group was falling apart. Critical female Beat, Joan Vollmer, broke down from amphetamine abuse and was taken to Bellevue Mental Hospital, Huncke was arrested for possession and went to prison, and Ginsberg escaped back to his father’s house. Then the arrival of another career criminal came, one who would take Huncke’s place as inspiration to the Beats: Neal Cassady. Besides, between stints in prison, Huncke’s selfish and compulsive criminality was wearing on the patience of everyone, including Ginsberg, whose things he stole and pawned.
Cassady grew up on the streets of Denver. The legends around him are myriad, thanks to Kerouac’s mythologizing, but he appears to have been a legendary car thief and womanizer, who knew how to have a good time. He was first picked up by the police at seven, stole his first car at fourteen, and did six stretches in prison for auto theft by the time he appeared on the Beat scene.
Back in St. Louis, Burroughs met his old friend, Kells Elvins, and together they moved to Texas as farmers. Burroughs attempted to grow opium and marijuana with limited success. He moved from South Texas to East Texas to Louisiana, always in search of the freedom of the frontier, but he never found it. Instead, he was arrested for fornicating by the side of the road, and picked up for riding in a car with a known junky. The police raided his home and found his letters to Ginsberg, containing numerous references to drugs. He was looking at several years in the notorious Angola Prison, so he skipped the border and settled in Mexico City, where the next big Beat crime would occur.
At this time, Ginsberg’s New York apartment was being used by Huncke and Vickie Russell to store stolen goods. Ginsberg became understandably paranoid that the police would raid his apartment, and wanted the goods out. Carr was also furious that his name was included in letters between Ginsberg and Burroughs, as he was now out of prison for the Kammerer murder, and eager to keep his name clean. These letters also contained incriminating references to homosexuality, and so Ginsberg wanted to be rid of them, too.
When Ginsberg enlisted the help of Russell’s boyfriend, Melody, to help move the stolen goods and letters from his apartment, Jack appeared in a stolen car. They loaded it up and headed out, but soon after they were pulled over for making an illegal turn and a high-speed chase occurred. Ginsberg escaped but his letters led the police right to his door, and he was locked up until his father bailed him out.
In Mexico City, Burroughs railed against the tyranny of the American government, and praised the freedom that came with living in Mexico, where the police would leave you alone, and if they did have cause to pick you up, they could easily be bribed. Here he wrote Junky, his first novel. It loosely fictionalized his life as a criminal, from his childhood obsession to his life as an addict.
It was there in 1951 he shot Joan Vollmer, now his common law wife, above the Bounty bar whilst attempting to sell a handgun. Although details have always been disputed, it appears they were playing a game of William Tell and the bullet flew too low. Burroughs spent thirteen days in jail before his brother arrived and bailed him out. His lawyer managed to bribe the ballistics expert and the witnesses, friends of Burroughs, corroborated his story that it was an accidental discharge. Burroughs was sentenced to probation, which meant checking in at the police station once a week. Instead, he fled to Europe and ended up in Tangier, where he was once again on heroin, and thankful for the lack of police intervention in his life.
The year 1951 also saw the completion of Kerouac’s On the Road, a chronicle of his travels across America and into Mexico. The book was not published for another six years, when Viking Press released it in 1957, and the Beat Generation exploded into infamy.
Public sentiment towards those who now became known as “Beatniks” turned decidedly sour. Kerouac’s use of pseudonyms caused him a spot of trouble, but most of it fell on the head of Neal Cassady, whose sudden fame as Dean Moriarty resulted in his 1958 arrest for marijuana possession. He was sentenced to five years in San Quentin.
Two years earlier, Ginsberg had read his seminal poem, “Howl,” and electrified the poetry community. It was picked up in the same year by Lawrence Ferlinghetti for City Lights Books,’ Pocket Poets Series. In 1957, the same year On the Road sparked a backlash against the Beat youth of America, Shigeyoshi Murao, legendary manager of City Lights, was arrested; more than five hundred copies of Howl and Other Poems were impounded on their way from London. An obscenity trial ensued, and the poem was judged “not obscene.”
Ginsberg shocked the literary community by abandoning San Francisco and moving to Paris, to take residence in what became known as the Beat Hotel. Soon he was living with Burroughs and Gregory Corso, and numerous other artists and writers. It was here that Burroughs’ classic, Naked Lunch, was edited and published, having been written mostly in Tangiers. Published in 1959, the book made its way to the United States slowly, relying on word of mouth. By 1962 it was banned, resulting in the second Beat obscenity trial. This time, however, it took significantly longer to convince the judge, and it was only in 1966 that Naked Lunch could legally be sold in the U.S.
By now the youthful exuberance of the Beats had waned as Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac mellowed with age. Ginsberg’s championing of various freedoms and support for protests throughout the sixties caused him to continually come face-to-face with the police in America and other countries. In 1965 he was deported from both Cuba and Czechoslovakia because of his homosexuality and perceived trouble-making. After the publication of On the Road, Kerouac became closer to his mother and spent much of his time at home, more or less out of trouble. Even Burroughs, the most criminally-inclined of the Beats, more or less kept out of trouble for his remaining years. He had always sought his own space in life away from the control of police and the government, and aside from continual searches at the airport, he was largely able to avoid the law.