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The City Lights Bookstore: the Beatnik’s Mecca


There are few places around the globe that fully encompass all things Beat Generation in the same way as the City Lights Bookstore. Situated in the heart of San Francisco and owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of the most prolific Beat Generation poets there is, the City Lights Bookstore is a Mecca for all beatniks and book lovers. A visit to City Lights is enough to transport anyone back to simpler times where you can focus on words, lyrics and meanings rather than your groceries, prescriptions or health insurance renewal.

City Lights Background

The City Lights Bookstore champions independent publishers and first published a huge number of now legendary cult titles including Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. The store exudes warmth and despite its cramped interior, it’s easy to see that every spare space is filled with the books that make San Francisco famous. Of course, to remain afloat, you’ll find the main floor stacked out with modern and contemporary fiction but also an astonishingly large collection of translated works from around the world, an area the shop’s founder Ferlinghetti has been said to be particularly interested in. The area we’re looking for however is found on the top floor. Book after book of poetry is stored up there and you can peruse the titles of your favourites and also indulge in some newer contemporary writers.

The store itself was founded in 1953 by Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, a close friend and the publishing company, responsible for so many of the classic Beat generation texts, began at the same time. This combination of both a publishing company, a bookstore and of course the name of a cult legend above its door has meant that City Lights is one of the most successful independent bookstores worldwide. When visiting City Lights, many pilgrims have even had the great honour of meeting Ferlinghetti, who still uses the store to read, write and relax. Since 2001, the store has been recognised as an official historic landmark thanks to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, due to its role in the literary history of the city.

City Lights Publishing House and the Pocket Poets Series

The publishing arm of the bookstore is also very popular. The instantly recognisable covers of the Pocket Poets Series included sixty books by Beat Generation poets as such as Kerouac, O’Hara, Levertov and of course, Ferlinghetti himself. The books were initially designed to make the poems of the Beats affordable and accessible to all and gave many people their first foray into an alternative, somewhat avant-garde area of poetry. Many of the collections originally published by City Lights Publishing in the Pocket Poets Series have gone on to be considered real classics such as Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara and Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. In the late sixties the publishing arm began to operate from a different location but was nevertheless successful, continuing to publish works by alternative, off-beat authors, branching out to specialise in world literature too. Recent developments in the non-fiction political arm of the publishing house has meant that City Lights can now include Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn among the authors they’ve published.

City Lights Foundation: giving something back to San Fran

The development of the City Lights Foundation is also a testament to the influence of the store. The foundation works with the aim of advancing deep literacy which roughly translates as their desire to strengthen literacy skills but also those essential elements of knowledge which enable people to develop and evolve as individuals and community members. This all sounds pretty deep and a lot of the works published via the Foundation are non-fiction dealing with very sensitive topics including homelessness, prison life and social justice.

The City Lights Bookstore describes itself as a specialist in world literature, the arts and progressive politics and hosts readings from modern day new generation Beat-style writers and pioneers the work of independently published authors.

Any self-respecting fan of the Beat Generation has the City Lights Bookstore among their top five places to visit before they die and in reality, it does not disappoint. On just entering the building you can begin to understand and immerse yourself in the world that your idols once inhabited. The City Lights Bookstore is a beacon for all beat pilgrims and somewhere which continually revolutionises and seeks to enhance the modern readers’ understanding of literature.


Article by Izzy Woods

Photo by David S. Wills

Homophobia in the Media’s Treatment of New Ginsberg Movie

by David S. Wills

So Daniel Radcliffe is going to play Allen Ginsberg in a new movie, called Kill Your Darlings. The movie is about the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr, a story which is part of Beat lore.

Yet for some reason, when you search for news about this announcement on the internet, it seems that there is a varying level of interest in the subject matter. More high-brow publications are fascinated by the story of Boy-Wizard-Turns-Beat-Poet, whereas at the other end of the scale, there is astonishment that this wholesome young man is portray – gasp! – a homosexual.

Ok, so Allen Ginsberg was gay and was not shy of making that fact known. David Kammerer was also a homosexual, and as the victim of the murder central to the movie’s plot, it is not homophobic at all to mention that the movie will likely contain some references to homosexuality. Indeed, Radcliffe himself mentioned to the French media that he would be playing “a gay character” in his next movie. Yet, the media seems disproportionately interested in this fact, as though there is something seedy or twisted about him (apparently inseparable from his most famous role) playing a gay man.

Let’s take a look at some of the media coverage.

The news appears to have been broken by Twitch, which – along with a few other publications – reported the story responsibly, mentioning that Radcliffe had claimed he was playing a “gay character” in his next movie (although mistakenly refers to Carr as Kammerer’s lover). We also have an announcement from the UK Press Association. It also does not play up the gay angle, and only mentions that his character is a homosexual in relation to what Radcliffe told the French press.

Daniel Radcliffe is apparently going to play beat poet Allen Ginsberg in his next film.

The Harry Potter star was quoted in the French press last week saying that he would very likely be playing a gay character in a film to be released in 2012.

Now movie blog reports he has been cast in Kill Your Darlings, a thriller based on actual events, and centred around the relationship between Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr.

Carr is credited for connecting writers Ginsberg, Kerouac and William S Burroughs but is best known for being found guilty of the murder of his lover David Kammerer in 1944.

The film is to be directed by script writer John Krokidas and previously began production in 2009 with Captain America’s Chris Evans, Jesse Eisenberg and I’m Not There’s Ben Whishaw attached to play Kerouac, Ginsberg and Carr, respectively.

It is not known if any of these actors are still attached to the project.

James Franco recently played Ginsberg in biopic Howl, released last year.

There is some more responsible reporting from The Guardian, which only mentions that the movie involves a “gay stalker”, which is true and central to the plot of the film. NME mentions the “gay stalker” and also references Radcliffe’s hint at a “gay character”.

At the other end of the spectrum there is The Sun, which unsurprisingly revels in playing up the gay angle. The sensationalist title reads, “Potter’s Dan Radcliffe to Play Gay Poet”. The article then focuses almost entirely on the fact that Radcliffe is playing a homosexual character, implying that there is something wrong with this, and something wrong with homosexuals. It mentions that Ginsberg was “openly gay” as though this is something we should still be shocked by, and even sinks as low as to dredge up rumours that Radcliffe himself is a homosexual. The language used to describe is “battle” against being thought of as gay, and the fact that they think it is worth mentioning that he supports tolerance towards homosexuals is appalling.

His new role is a brave move for the star, who has battled rumours that he is homosexual.

He has also donated cash to a US charity that promotes tolerance towards gay men, lesbians and bisexuals.

In March 2010 he denied being gay following internet speculation about his sexuality.

That this is even worth mentioning shows a worrying degree of prejudice on the part of the writers and editors… although given the history of the “news”paper, it is hardly a surprise.

We also have some shoddy reporting AceShowBiz, who deem the gay element of the film so important that they place it firmly in the title of their article. The article then focuses on the fact that Ginsberg was a homosexual, implying – as did The Sun – that this makes him an unwholesome, undesirable character to play. But how much stock can you put in an article written by someone who fails to realise that Ginsberg has been dead for more than a decade (“…is a gay rights activist…”) and stated that Kammerer and Carr were “lovers”, when in fact Kammerer’s obsession with Carr was entirely one-sided.

The HuffPo also falls into the trap of referring to Kammerer and Carr as “lovers”, and also calls the movie, “gay-themed”. I can’t say that I’ve seen the screenplay, but I’d be surprised if it was gay-themed, whatever that means. More likely it’s a movie about a pivotal event in literary history, focused on a murder. I doubt that they’d refer to any other thriller as, “straight-themed” or play up the sexuality of a couple of heterosexuals.

Towleroad quite likely has the best headline relating to the Radcliffe/Ginsberg story, saying: “Daniel Radcliffe to Play Allen Ginsburg (sic) in Gay-Themed Thriller”. So not only have they fallen into the trap of assuming this movie is all about homosexuality, just because it features a gay character, but they have misspelled that gay character’s name!

A website called Fansshare evidently seems set on claiming that worst title award, with: “Daniel Radcliffe to Star in Gay Movie”. That seems a little misleading, as though Radcliffe were starring in a gay porno. The article then says that he “has to portray a gay man,” which is just awful phrasing, and then has a whole paragraph devoted to whether or not he will have to kiss another male. One can almost hear the editors tittering in the background.

The website FilmSchoolRejects sadly states that it’s wrong for actors to play gay characters at the risk of setting a bad example for kids: “…now he’s playing a homosexual drug addict. That’s a little much for someone who, just a few months ago, was an idol to little kids. How about we dial it down a notch Daniel?”

Overall, coverage of this breaking story has been embarrassing. If you search Google News for “Daniel Radcliffe Allen Ginsberg”, you will be hard-pressed to find a source that doesn’t play up the gay angle. More worryingly is the number that includes “gay” in the title or subtitle of the article, highlighting the importance it holds to the author or editor of that publication. That sexuality is such a big deal in 2011 is a damning indictment of our society, and media outlets do us no favours by displaying their shock when a young man – a hero to children! – decides to play a homosexual character, or jumps to the conclusion that a movie featuring a gay character will inevitably be “gay-themed” or just plain “gay”.

Then again, look at these articles. They basically plagiarise one another, contain numerous glaring factual inaccuracies, refer to “Ginsburg” as a “beatnik” (a derogatory term), and often refer to Radcliffe as Harry Potter. Are these professional journalists that are writing? Are they responsible, intelligent bloggers? Does it appear that anyone has cast any form of editorial eye over these pieces of shoddy reporting? No. Perhaps Google “News” should have more stringent criteria for the reporting that cluttering my feed.

Daniel Radcliffe to Play Allen Ginsberg

Apparently Harry Potter star, Daniel Radcliffe, has agreed to play the role of Allen Ginsberg in John Krokidas’ new movie, Kill Your Darlings. The movie is said to revolve around the 1944 New York world of the Beats, focusing on the fallout from the murder of David Kammerer.

Radcliffe takes over from Jesse Eisenberg, who was originally slated to play Ginsberg, and joins Chris Evans and Ben Wishaw in the line-up. The usual movie news websites seem to enjoy playing up the fact that this is a “gay” movie.

It seems that the Beats are firmly back in film fashion, with Howl, On the Road, Big Sur, and Queer all attracting attention recently. Let’s just hope Radcliffe does as good a job as James Franco.

Many Loves

by Dr Madhu Mehrotra and Geetanjali Joshi Mishra

“Resolved to sing no songs henceforth but those of manly attachment”

-Walt Whitman

“Longing is a better muse than satisfaction” says Regina Marler the author of ‘Queer Beat: How the Beats turned America onto sex’ and this is very true with regard to the nucleus of the generation which broke all rules of hegemonic, heterosexual, square society, a generation that questioned procreation itself, that regarded ‘manly love’ as the source of all enlightenment and divinity. Without Kerouac there would have been no ‘Howl’, without Neal there would have been no On the Road and without Ginsberg there would have been no Naked Lunch. It is rather amusing that all these poets were at some point of their lives unrequited lovers of each other. While Ginsberg longed for sexual unification with Kerouac and Neal, Burroughs on the other hand loved Ginsberg who in turn loved Burroughs but not the way he loved Neal and Jack and his long time flame Peter Orlovsky. Though there were many heart breaks, and Ginsberg felt that both Kerouac and Neal “ didn’t want anymore sex” with him and that they actually “rejected” him, but “had there been direct, requited, unhampered love between any two Beats, they would have paired off and broken the circle”.  This is what is so unique about these writers, they were muses  to each other  and without one the other was incomplete.

The generation has been accused of being sexist, though women were not very popular as a part of the Beat generation, there were few who made some impact and were part of the grand orgy. Diane Di Prima, a bisexual bohemian, the writer of ‘ Memoirs of a beatnik’ and the co-editor of a newsletter  ‘The Floating Beer’ was one such magnetic woman who quite often made out and participated in orgies involving almost all the major Beat poets. She describes one such occasion when all the poets got involved in one of the most mystifying orgies of their time. She says “it was a strange, nondescript kind of orgy. Allen set things going by largely and fully embracing all of us, each in turn and all at once, sliding from body to body in a great wallow of flesh.” Ginsberg in particular loved to “lie down between the bridegroom and the bride” and would embrace “those bodies fallen from heaven stretched out waiting naked and restless.”

In the 1950s it often seemed that the only openly gay poet was Allen Ginsberg. The enormous publicity that Ginsberg received made him an important figure, whose avowal of homosexuality was part of his larger attempt to undermine American society and its pretensions to respectability. Although many of the Beat writers were homosexual or bisexual (such as Burroughs or Kerouac), it was Ginsberg who made his sexuality an integral part of his public image and his poetry. ‘Howl’ was the first poem to bring Ginsberg public attention, and its treatment of homosexuality is characteristic of Ginsberg’s position during this time. Ginsberg followed the poetic tradition of Whitman and spoke about the ‘self’ in his poems, though Whitman kept his sexuality mostly underground emphasized behind the themes of procreation in his work, Ginsberg on the other hand celebrated it. Whitman’s sexuality was portrayed as both active and passive in his works; he devoted much attention to the image of two lovers happy together as to actual moments of sexual penetration.  In Ginsberg the desire for religious vision is transformed into a desire to be laid, whereas in Whitman the experience of sexual pleasure leads to a greater understanding of the world. Ginsberg takes inspiration from Whitman when he transforms an ultimately peaceful vision of human unity into an affirmation of the homosexual’s alienation from the “straight” world and a desire to become an object of love rather than a participant in it.

The  writing  of obscene, and provocative phrases like ‘Butler has no balls’ and ‘Fuck the Jews’ and tracing two lewd drawings, one of a phallus and testicles and the other of a skull and cross bones on the dust of his dorm window, led to the expulsion of Allen Ginsberg from Columbia University. What could have caused Ginsberg to create such an outrage? For answers we might have look into his childhood. Naomi gave birth to Irvin Allen in Newark, New Jersey in 1926, his father Louis was for Allen an ‘old fashioned’ lyric poet who was used to making ‘clever puns.’ Ginsberg was in a silent and intense war against his parents, his silent revenge, gave birth to the most remarkable pieces of American poetry, ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish’. Ginsberg was always haunted by the ghosts of his parents; he would be haunted all his life by Naomi, which resulted in some very provocative and obscene episodes in ‘Kaddish’. Bill Morgan in his book I Celebrate Myself: the somewhat private life of Allen Ginsberg captures the appalling incidences that took place in the house of young Allen: “she seldom wore a dress around the house and Allen became quite familiar with his mother’s anatomy. He was particularly upset when he saw her wearing only a bloody menstrual pad while doing her chores.”

His motherless childhood starved him of loving touch and affection, physical contact became a very strong need. He would share the bed with his brother, who would push him away as he would desire to be physically close to him. “I must have been a sexpest to the whole family” confessed Ginsberg years later. Louis Ginsberg called him a “Little Kissing bug” as he desired to be physically close to his father and brother. His yearning to be close in childhood manifested itself in a profound sense of alienation in his youth, his sense of alienation was intense and excruciating, even in the company of the like minded crazy men, whose minds were ‘destroyed by madness’, Allen always remained a lone star, he wanted Jack to remember that he was a Jew and an outcast “I am alien to your natural grace,” he wrote. “I am in exile from myself.” He added, “You are an American more completely than I, more fully a child of nature and all that is the grace of the earth…I am not a child of nature, I am ugly and imperfect.”

To top it all 1950’s was an era of sexual liberation and revolution. The concept of ‘Free Love’ as expressed by hippies, didn’t just appear overnight. It was a philosophy with roots deep in human consciousness and the 50’s which just required a little encouragement to surface. That encouragement appeared in the 1950s in the form of new knowledge about human sexuality, ‘the pill’, psychedelic drugs, and a counter-culture which rejected the conservative ways and embraced individual freedom. A new awareness of human sexuality began to spread among Americans starting with the Kinsey Report in 1948. It was a nine year study of human sexuality which opened everyone’s minds to the diversity of sexual behaviour. The result of the survey indicated the astonishing truth that up to 10% of the entire population was gay. One statistic suddenly put homosexuality into a whole new light for many people. Another statistic from the study that shocked people was the fact that nearly everyone masturbated. The backdrop for a new generation to explore their sexuality in a free and uninhibited way was initiated in the late 50’s. Allen Ginsberg and his circle wrote popular books that embraced sensuality and sexual experimentation as an essential ingredient to living life to its fullest. Yet it took America with its conservative, Puritan roots a while to catch on to this new awareness and freedom as Americans were programmed at an early age to regard sex and marriage as a sacred pair, not to be separated. So the whole generation growing up in the 1960s, developed a radically different attitude towards sex as compared to their parents. Drugs like marijuana, alcohol, LSD and cocaine loosened inhibitions and sex became just another ‘turn-on’. Gay men and women started coming out of the closet in the cities. Communal living situations fostered short-lived relationships, and much sexual experimentation. As a young student when Ginsberg got admitted to Columbia, he neither had any notion of what literary style he would adopt for his poetry, nor did he realize his potent and hidden homosexuality. He, for the first time explored his homosexuality through the company of men Like Lucien Carr and Kerouac. 1950’s was not an era of sexual liberty and liberation, homosexuality on the other hand was considered abomination by the civilized ‘square’ society. Ginsberg kept his homosexuality hidden and used coded language to communicate with likeminded intellectuals. Homosexuality being considered as felony caused homosexuals to go underground and create their own secret society, it was this secret society that Ginsberg communicated with, in bars and coffee shops. He started reading books on the subject of ‘sex’, both fiction and nonfiction, Clifford Howards’s idea of ‘phallus’ being “the embodiment of creative power” interested him the most and he formed his own mythology of phallus being the fountain of all creativity. Jonah Ruskin, the writer of ‘American Scream’ gives us an account of Ginsberg’s sexuality and his fascination for sex and Kerouac.  “Sex and sexuality became the subtext of his fiction and poetry; almost all his symbols were sexual symbols, he explained to Kerouac. At eighteen Ginsberg fell in love with Kerouac and wrote love poems and love stories about him.” He confesses in his gay sunshine interview , conducted in 1972 in his Cherry Valley  farm in upstate New York that when he realised in the early 50’s that he was in love with Kerouac, he told him one night, “Jack, you know I love you, and I want to sleep with you, and I really like men.” Though Kerouac didn’t seem to be really interested at that time, Ginsberg felt that “he wasn’t going to reject” him “really, he was going to accept my soul with all its throbbing and sweetness and worries and dark woes and sorrows and heartaches and joys and glees and mad understandings of morality…” Eventually both of them caught up together, Ginsberg recollects that “I blew him, I guess. He once blew me, years later. It was sort of sweet, peaceful.”

The principal episode in the life of Ginsberg which changed the course of his writing forever was his affair with Neal Cassady. It was in the year 1946 when Allen Ginsberg and Neal Casady met; Allen instantly fell in love with the wild, young and handsome boy he came across. Cassady was “The Mover, compulsive, dedicated, ready to sacrifice family, friends, even his very car itself to the necessity of moving from one place to another.” Cassady was a sexual outlaw and Ginsberg was aware of his dark ‘caliban’ side. Cassady was a sadist and derived pleasure in abusing Allen both physically and emotionally, but Ginsberg on the other hand ‘turned the agony of their relationship into the ecstasy of art. If he was sexually abused he would be inspired to write poetry.” Neal Cassady was the major influences that inspired ‘Howl’, and it is Cassady who is the sexual hero of the poem, in the poem he appears to be the ‘Adonis of Denver’ Adonis being a Greek mythological figure associated with male youth and beauty. In ‘Howl’ Ginsberg describes Cassady as “flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake” who “went out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars, N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver—joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards, moviehouses’ rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves or with gaunt waitresses in familiar roadside lonely petticoat upliftings & especially secret gas-station solipsisms of johns, & hometown alleys too…” Indeed, Cassady often took on a larger than life persona in much of the Beat literature. ‘Please Master’ is one of the most graphically written works by Ginsberg about his relationship with Neal Cassady. Ginsberg portrays sadomasochistic sexuality precisely as a symbolic relationship, with language, too, that is ironic in its erotic affirmation of the master’s dominance and slave’s submission. In ‘Please Master’ Cassady seems self-evidently the controlling master having his way with a submissive Ginsberg. However a closer reading of the poem dramatizes sexual activity that, of course, would not occur without the person in the slave subject position initiating intercourse. However, it was Peter Orlovsky with whom Ginsberg had a long lasting affair which continued as long as Ginsberg was alive. The Pygmalion legend came true for Allen when he first saw a painting of Peter made by a young artist by the name of La Vigne, he was at once in love with this young boy in the painting with his yellow hair and a pleasing smile. Peter was primarily heterosexual and cried the first time after making love to Allen. Allen explained this later by stating that “the reason he wept was that he realised how much he was giving me, and how much I was demanding, asking and taking” while Allen on the  other hand knew that in Peter he had found a long lasting union, he wrote a poem called ‘Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo’ addressing it to Kerouac, describing his inner state of mind after having Peter in his life:

I’m happy Kerouac, your madman’s Allen’s

finally made it: discovered a new young cat,

And my imagination of an eternal boy

Walks on the streets of San Francisco,

Handsome, and meets me in cafeterias

And loves me…

Later when Allen and Peter moved in together they shared a beautiful bond of trust, faith, friendship and love. Peter was much younger to Allen and looked up to him, together they travelled a lot to Asia, especially India, where they lived for several years and kept on visiting later. Allen for the first time proposed marriage. It was Peter with whom he wanted to share that special bond of trust and everlasting love. He proposed that he and Peter should take marriage vows and one morning at 3 AM “We made a vow to each other that he could owe me, my mind and everything I knew, and his body; and that we would give each other ourselves, so that we possessed each other as property, to do everything we wanted to, sexually or intellectually, and in a sense explore each other until we reached the mystical ‘X’”

Allen as a lover had always been demanding but at the same time he had given freedom to his partners to explore their own sexuality. The desire to be laid, and to be loved are the strongest in Ginsberg. He always feared separation and pain and begged his lovers not to condone their love. In one of his journals, he wrote an entry addressed to Peter saying, “So I don’t care who else you screw, make it with girls, only to be sure to keep compassion for me, answer call when I break down to need of love moment- initiate my liberation and sexual revelation of self. Far as I know I want to be tied to bed and screwed, whipped, want to wrestle and blow and come in unison, sexual ecstasy…”

On the other hand with Neal Cassady Ginsberg shared a sadomasochistic relationship. Neal abused Allen, which he encouraged, “I want to be your slave, suck your ass, suck your cock, you fuck me, you master me, you humiliate me” wrote Ginsberg in one of his journals. Ginsberg’s father Louis Ginsberg, knew that Neal was a bad influence and he warned his son to “Exorcise Neal”. Ginsberg finally understood that Neal was not the partner who could have shared a bond of eternal love and ecstasy with him.

Ginsberg was a self declared homosexual and thus kept off woman for most of his life. It is said that he embraced misogyny in the 50’s and though he admitted that he hated women, he did have some female partners. He fantasised making love to Neal and his wife Carolyn which he mentions in his ‘Love Poem on Theme by Whitman’ He had both male and female lovers who came together for the celebrated orgies at his apartment. In the beginning of 1955, he wrote to Jack telling him how he had come to enjoy the company of women too, “something great happens to me in Frisco. After girl now for first time in life boy.” Johan Raskin talks about Ginsberg’s liberated and ecstatic life in California, he says “California was dream-like not because he was writing great poetry, but because he was enjoying great sex.”

Eroticism and its elements have long been considered mystic in the poetic traditions of the world. It could be the troubadours of the English courtly love poetry or the erotic Sanskrit verses, mysticism can be said to be inherent in them. Ginsberg refers exclusively towards the glorification of the human body. In fact, it will not be an overstatement to say that Ginsberg is a neo humanist; he aims at establishing a contact with his spirit and the universal human spirit through extensive allusions to the body, in Ginsberg the allusions to the body and the longing to make love and be loved represents a yearning thirst to satisfy the instinct for spiritual growth. Ginsberg may be easily compared with the few poets who could understand the transcendence of sex into the realms of spirituality much on the lines that Osho later picked it on. Osho argued in his book ‘Sex Matters’ that love and sex are inseparable and that orgasm is an inside into timelessness and thoughtlessness. These were the lines on which Ginsberg wrote his erotic love poetry.

It is true that Ginsberg’s sexual self and his ‘Many Loves’ dominated most part of his life and had a remarkable influence on his writings. It seemed that the more sex he got the better he wrote. Sex inspired him and worked as an elixir; though he had many affairs mostly disappointing he continued his search for the ultimate love making that could take him to the ‘mystical X’ he was searching all his life.

Big Sur: The Movie

This past year has been kind to fans of the Beat Generation. First there was “Howl”, the movie about Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, starring James Franco and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Then came “On the Road”, adapted from Jack Kerouac’s classic novel, and starring Sam Reilly and Kristen Stewart. As it hasn’t reached the cinema yet, it remains to be seen whether it will enthrall Beat fans like “Howl”.

Now there is “Big Sur”, based upon another Kerouac classic. According to the day’s news, the movie will be directed by Michael Polish and starring Jean-Marc Barr, Josh Lucas and Kate Bosworth.

Also coming up this year is the long, long, long awaited movie based on Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp and directed by Bruce Robinson.

The Lady is a Humble Thing: Elise Cowen

By Karen Baddeley

The Lady is a humble thing

Made of death and water

The fashion is to dress it plain

And use the mind for border

I remember watching the man I was supposed to marry through my peephole. He had just told me that he was going to marry someone else: a kindergarten teacher from Yonkers, a nice Irish Catholic girl. I am not a kindergarten teacher from Yonkers. He left and trotted down the hall and the stairs. I wondered how someone could just switch it off so easily, the love switch. It was supposed to be harder for him to let go. So when I found Elise Cowen, I understood.

She was born and raised in Washington Heights on Bennett Avenue, three blocks away from where I live now. She has often been described as coming from a wealthy family but this isn’t true. They were a typical middle-class, Jewish family; common in that part of Washington Heights. “They had a ‘nice’ apartment on Bennett Avenue in Washington Heights, on the seventh floor of a blonde brick house built just before the war,” (Johnson 54). The early part of her life was nothing spectacular, but there was tension in her home. Her father was a failed entertainer and now sold sheet music, her mother was a homemaker. “Elise was the focus point of their high-strung emotions, even of their battles with each other. She was the sore spot, the darkness in the household, depriving her parents of the middle-aged gaiety that should have been theirs,” (Johnson 54). She was their only child, an added pressure.

Her name really was “Elise Nada Cowen.” When I first read that, I thought this was some nom de plume she took on. But no, it really was Nada. “Literally it means Nothing – Nothing and Nothingness,” (54) Elise told her friend Joyce Johnson with pride. Johnson was obsessed by this odd choice for a middle name. “Humility – that was the Nada side of her,” (56) she said. Her father was likely the parent who chose this name for her. Even her first name conjured up odd imagery. “[Lucien Carr] took a fancy to Elise – her name seemed to give him endless amusement. Ellipse, he called her. Or Eclipse. ‘Well now, Eclipse, what’ll you have?’ he’d shout across the room, and his wife Cessa would redden and say ‘Oh Lucien!’” (Johnson 125). An eclipse: when one object moves into the shadow of another.

Elise was popular enough, had friends, and did well in school. When she was about 13 or 14 she was baking brownies for her friends. She opened the oven to check on them and the oven exploded in her face “singeing off quite a lot of her hair as well as her eyebrows. After this she always thought of herself as ugly,” (Johnson 54). She wasn’t the only one. After this accident her father quit calling her beautiful as well. On top of all this she was plagued by all the usual joys of adolescence: acne, breasts that were too large, and general awkwardness.

Her grades were good enough to get into Barnard, and that’s where her life changed. Writer Joyce Johnson, who remained Cowen’s best friend throughout her entire life, was initially opposed to getting to know Elise. “During that first weekend at Barnard I met a girl whom my instincts told me to avoid… She was standing in the corner of the Barnard gym, scowling downward as she was concentrated on something she was doing with her hands,” (Johnson 51-52). She was the girl in the corner. Johnson was majoring in music at the time in need of sheet music. Elise told her to quit buying it, that she could get it for her for free from her father. “There was an hour before our next classes, which we ended up cutting, unwilling to tear ourselves away from our conversation of such inexhaustible intimacy. Most of our conversations were like that during the ten years we knew each other, so that even now it’s sometimes a shock to remember that Elise is dead and I can’t pick up the phone and speak to her,” (Johnson 53).

Elise was an English major, focused on the works of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound whom she frequently quoted in conversation. “’Pull down thy vanity, I say, pull down…” It was she who first read me that line of Pound’s, triumphantly, one afternoon in the Barnard library,” (Johnson 56). But she struggled in school, uninterested in the coursework though she was interested in the subject matter. “She couldn’t reconcile her intellectual passions with the need to get by fulfilling requirements,” (Johnson 57). I understood. I had to drop out of my first attempt at college (a different women’s college in the Midwest) after I stopped going to classes. Cowen moved out and dropped out of Barnard, taking a room in a boarding house nearby.

Joyce Johnson was in awe of her friend’s bold decision to move out completely on her own. Women back then lived with their parents, husbands, or in schools, they never moved out on their own. Elise needed to be independent, something that Johnson related to and admired. “I envied the courage it represented,” (Johnson 63). Though Elise put on a brave front, she was also extremely depressed. While at the boarding house, she made her first attempt at suicide. “She said she’d slipped in someone’s bathroom and cut herself on some broken glass – it was really all quite stupid. They’d had to take stitches,” (Johnson 65). She was lonely and isolated since she left Barnard. Johnson wrote “recently Elise and I had discussed suicide and had agreed that there might be points in your life when it could present itself as one of the honorable alternatives,” (Johnson 66).

Around this time, she began dating her former philosophy professor Donald Cook. He dated many students from Barnard and Elise was nothing special to him. The difference between Elise and the other girls was that she acted as his assistant as well as his lover. She cared for his toddler son, cooked, and cleaned his apartment. She told Johnson (who dated Cook herself later on) that she didn’t mind doing these chores for him when he went out with other women. She felt that it was her duty to support Cook and make it easier for him to do his work.

It’s hard to say what Elise Cowen’s poems are “about” (if anything) because when they were discovered, they were bits and pieces and undated. But it doesn’t matter since history often repeated itself with Elise, particularly when it came to her romantic relationships. Just the title in her poem “Teacher – your body my Kabbalah” speaks volumes. Spirituality and religion are frequent ideas that Elise plays with in her poetry. “She embraces images of sacred power so that they may be reconceived, revising the language of prayer in favor of language that is both materialist and incantatory,” (Trigilio 128). Unsurprisingly, it was also where she chose to where she explored her relationships in ways that she did not express to her friends. She writes “Donald’s first bed wherein this fantasy/shame changing him to you…/Shame making body thought/a game.” She was self-aware despite her friends’ perceptions. She did feel pain in her relationship in ways that others did not expect of her. She continues:

Fear making guilt making shame

making fantasy & logic & game &

elegance of covering splendor

emptying memory of event

She was well aware, likely from her parents and analysts, on the complications of being a single, sexually active woman in the early sixties. She wasn’t a “nice” girl once she’d moved out and once she’d had sex with Cook, and in some way, this troubled her. She was also concerned and confused by the way Cook himself treated the relationship.

While at Barnard, things began to change for Elise, but there are no words to describe what happened when she met and dated Allen Ginsberg. On their first date she went downtown to meet him. “She takes the subway to the Village where he’s waiting, and they walk through those blocks that were the geography of my adolescent yearnings to the San Remo Bar, where an amazing number of people seem to know him,” (Johnson 73-74). Elise was in love from the first moment they met, she was in awe of him. Cowen was discouraged, however, as she observed the women at the San Remo. “The women here, Elise notices, are all beautiful and have such remarkable cool that they never, never say a word; they are presences merely. But she herself is tormented by speechlessness. Why can’t she say more?” (Johnson 74). The other women were the chicks, they were hangers-on. Elise wanted more.

She was sure it was love, she felt an intense connection to Allen as if they were siblings – they did resemble each other physically. They make love that first night, “an act his analyst would have approved of and hers might have viewed as quite negative, (Johnson 76). She frequently referred to Allen as her intercessor. “In Elise’s life, Allen was an eternity,” (Johnson 78). Unfortunately for Elise, this was also the time when Allen started to explore his desires for men. She was the last woman he ever dated.

Allen started dating Peter Orlovsky, Elise started dating a woman referred to as “Sheila” (her real name has never been revealed in any piece about Elise). Elise’s reasons for taking a female lover were still connected to Allen. “In loving Sheila, Elise is loving Allen too, reaching him in some place in her mind, living his life – loving Sheila as Allen loves men,” (Johnson 92). Elise and Allen would always remain close, at least in her mind. “Until the time she died, her world was Allen,” (Skir 155).

Elise replicated her relationship with Donald Cook in her relationship with Allen (although her relationship with Allen was ultimately not a sexual one). Allen and Peter moved into Elise’s apartment in Yorkville. “In the apartment in Yorkville, Elise waited, ironing, making soup, taking messages, lying down a mattress to smoke a cigarette and stare out at the vista of rooftops, where pigeons circled in the winter sky,” (Johnson 122). Allen’s book, Howl, had just been released in New York and “you could find the small, square, black and white books in only two places in the city – Elise’s kitchen and the Eighth Street Bookshop,” (Johnson 122). But in supporting Allen, she was losing herself, never attempting to have her own work published. In “Sitting” she writes:

Sitting with you in the kitchen

Talking of anything

Drinking tea

I love you

Oh I wish you body here

With or without the bearded poem (Knight 158)

She still had that dreamy-love feeling that she had when she first met Allen. For her, it was a happy life.

She typed Kaddish for Allen, no small undertaking. It was his “long poem about his mother Naomi… ‘You haven’t done with her yet?’ she asked. A question Allen recorded in his journal,” (Johnson 256). Johnson observes that there is a connection between Elise and Allen’s mother Naomi who, for years, struggled with an undiagnosed mental illness, finally passing away in an institution. He wrote in his journal years later that “I’ve always been attracted to intellectual madwomen,” (Johnson 76). He was not referring to Elise specifically in this statement. She was, in fact, only mentioned twice in his collected journals and letters.

Allen moved to San Francisco, Elise moved in with her parents who agreed she could live with them if she agreed to go into psychoanalysis. She got a job at NBC working overnight typing scripts, but by this time, she’d begun drinking heavily. She was fired from NBC and created a disturbance when she was not told why she was being fired. The police were called. They physically removed her from the NBC offices, breaking her glasses and punching her in the stomach. She was taken to the stationhouse and called her father who told her “This will kill your mother,” (Johnson 164). This is the moment it all starts chipping away and falling apart. It was sudden, but not shocking.

Elise moves to San Francisco and things kept falling apart. The original plan was that she would move there with Joyce Johnson, in fact it was Johnson’s idea (she wanted to be closer to her boyfriend Jack Kerouac). But she left by herself. “Elise, although she wouldn’t come out and say it, wanted to go to San Francisco for purposes of love,” (Johnson 118). Elise sent Johnson postcards, but they were vague and general. Johnson began to panic when the postcards stopped. She called the bar The Place and tried to get a hold of Elise, finally she did. Elise was broke, the scene was weird, and she was only eating one meal a day. She was alive, but not doing well and Johnson continued to worry. Then Connie Sublette was murdered. Connie’s ex-husband Al Sublette was a friend of Jack Kerouac. They were both part of the whole scene in San Francisco. She was out looking for Al when she met Frank Harris, a drug addicted sailor, who raped and killed Connie in an alley. “Her name was Connie, but I read Elise into her story,” (Johnson 201). It turned out that Elise actually did know Connie and gave her a cigarette on the day Connie was killed. “I knew Elise would have tried to look out for her,” (Johnson 200). It was a frightening brush with death, but only Johnson saw the connection.

She was living with an Irish artist, an alcoholic, when she became pregnant. In the days before Row her options weren’t good. She could come up with the few hundred dollars it took to get an illegal abortion, go to Mexico, or attempt to get a legal psychiatric abortion. Elise chose the latter. She had no money, so it was really the only viable choice she had. She finally got the abortion around January, the new year, but by now, several months had passed, she had to have a full hysterectomy. She only confided this in her friend Leo Skir, eventually, and he tells Joyce Johnson that “the fetus had grown too large for a simple D&C. She had to have a hysterectomy,” (Skir 153). It would have been the wrong decision for her to have had the baby considering her present state, but it had to have weighed heavily on her, especially since the fetus had developed so much. After the abortion, she moved back to New York and back with her parents in Washington Heights.

Elise was almost immediately placed in Bellevue Hospital for Hepatitis and a mental breakdown. She was doing drugs, she had fallen apart completely. “She was spinning downward very fast, experiments with drugs that stretched the mind until it came apart… Methadrine withered her,” (Johnson 257). Johnson had her first book, Come and Join the Dance, published and Elise featured prominently (though fictionally) in it. Her character was named “Kay” and Elise became obsessed by the connection between Johnson’s Kay and the “Kay” from Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group. In McCarthy’s novel, Kay falls (or jumps) from her hotel’s balcony while searching for enemy planes.

It was February when Elise jumped from her parent’s living room window. Jumped isn’t the right description. She threw herself through a closed and locked window and landed in the apartment’s courtyard. Her parents tried to destroy all of Elise’s journals, poems and writings. They mostly succeeded, but Leo Skir was able to rescue about 80 poems he took from Elise’s closet when he went to her parent’s home to pay his respects. Eventually, these were published in the Evergreen Review. It was the first time any of her work was published. The following is believed to be her last poem:

No love

No compassion

No intelligence

No beauty

No humility

Twenty-seven years is enough

Mother – too late – years of meanness – I’m sorry

Daddy – What happened?

Allen – I’m sorry

Peter – Holy Rose Youth

Betty – Such womanly bravery

Keith – Thank you

Joyce – So girl beautiful

Howard – Baby take care

Leo – Open the windows and Shalom

Carol – Let it happen

Let me out now please –

Please let me in (Knight 165)

Howl Comes to the UK

‘Howl’, the wonderful movie starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, is set to hit UK cinemas on 25th February. For all UK fans of the Beat generation Beatdom strongly suggests that you go out and watch it. Franco is magnificent and the directors and artists have done a truly spectacular job in putting together this masterpiece.

The UK distributor for this movie is Soda Pictures. You can watch a trailer and learn more about the movie at their website:

Howl UK Release

On February 25th, Soda Pictures is releasing ‘Howl’ in UK cinemas. The celebrated new movie features James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, and also includes John Hamm and Jeff Daniels in the cast. The movies centres around the obscenity trial against City Lights Bookstore after the publication of Ginsberg’s legendary Beat poem, ‘Howl.’

30 Days of Writing

Tomorrow begins the first day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a time of year when unpublished writers attempt to hammer out a classic within 30 days. The Independent has an interesting article on some famous novelists throughout history who’ve managed to create a classic in under a month.

Included on that list, naturally, is Jack Kerouac. Continue Reading…

The Spirit of the Female Beats

“Women of the Beat weren’t afraid to get dirty. They were compassionate, careless,charismatic, marching to a different drummer, out of step. Muses who birthed a poetryso raw and new and full of power that it changed the world. Writers whose words weavespells, whose stories bind, whose vision blinds. Artists for whom curing the disease of artkills.” – Women of the Beat Generation (Brenda Knight, 1998) Continue Reading…