By Noel Dávila
On Ginsberg’s anger & kindness, Kerouac’s “homo viator”, Burroughs’ excremental prose and a fateful evening in the American Midwest.
“What is it you want to talk about, in case I have nothing to say?” I received the above message on my phone from Michael Sharp, who I’d been trying to sit down with for nearly three months. As our anticipated encounter approached I wondered at the possibility of yet another setback. Two days before our repeatedly rescheduled talk, I was not pleased with his message. “The Beats”, I replied, “and your experience, interpretation and knowledge of them.” No surprises; simple as that.
However, I was pleasantly surprised at the unexpected outcome of my conversation with Sharp, a respected professor and published poet. His insight provides a clear path leading from the Romantics of the 19th century to the Beats, and then from the Beats to rock & roll. Having attended a reading from Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso in the 80s, Sharp draws a parallel between these so-called readings and rock shows, hinting at the exhilaration of a performance few can claim to have witnessed.
Trained as a Romanticist and in the literature and ideas of the Nineteenth Century, Michael Sharp’s expertise also encompasses poetry and Victorian literature. I sat down with him at his office in the University of Puerto Rico to discuss why he thinks the Beats were American literature’s first rockers, Burroughs’ genius or lack thereof, and the momentous performance he witnessed at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s.
How did you first come in contact with the Beats? Was it through their writing or through the live shows?
I think it must have been through reading them, but seeing some of them perform was great also. I saw Burroughs, Ginsberg and Corso on stage at the University of Wisconsin about 25 years ago.
What year was this?
It would’ve been 1980 something… I forget when Ginsberg died – 1997, I think – but certainly all three of them were alive. Corso died in 2000; he’s buried in Rome, you know, next to the poet Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery. Quite close to Keats’ grave. It must have been about ’82 or ’83.
What can you tell me about the show, or the readings?
Well, it was electric. In one corner, Burroughs sat ominously behind a desk, and his fingers, which were very long, hung over the desk, very noticeably. In fact, his fingers were more noticeable than he was. He wore a gray suit, but then he always wore a suit, and he never moved. I think he read from copies of Junky and Naked Lunch in front of him; that’s all he did, he never moved, and his hands remained like this (places hands on desk). Ginsberg had brought his squeeze box and there was a guitarist with him. Corso, who was “the fourth Beat,” after Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac, was hovering in the background with a bottle of whiskey – loaded, it seemed. It made for good theater and the nice thing about the reading was that while Ginsberg was doing mantras, he was making eyes at and seemed attracted to the guitarist. This intimate sideshow was part of the show which was periodically interrupted by this strange man here who never moved and Corso who flitted around upstage like a ruined dancer.
So they were all three together?
All three. They were on tour. The University of Wisconsin invited artists, mostly classical musicians and orchestras and Ginsberg & Co were part of the season’s offering. The Beat Show was very memorable and the place was packed.
You’d mentioned it was akin to a rock band playing live.
Oh yes, it certainly was. They were American literature’s first rockers. Well, you know they’re related in a way. Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty (On the Road) is a rapper of sorts. Burroughs later associated with Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground, and The Clash, among others.
There is a line that leads from the Beats to many rock bands.
Bob Dylan was a great fan of Ginsberg, so was Kurt Cobain.
Kurt Cobain actually met William Burroughs and they spent some time together.
Yes. In Graham Caveney’s Gentleman Junkie: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs, there’s a photograph of the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.. As for Cobain and Nirvana, well, you know, there’s something ‘grungy’ about William Burroughs.
He ventured into other things besides literature: film, acting, multimedia…
He was in a film with Matt Dillon (Drugstore Cowboy). He did a film with Warhol if I remember correctly. He sang as a guest vocalist on Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak. He painted, of course. When he moved to Kansas he started to paint, apparently giving up writing, if writing is the right word for what Burroughs did.
The cut up procedure.
Norman Mailer said that Burroughs “Is the only American novelist living today that may conceivably be possessed by genius.” Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Yes, in a way. I read somewhere that Burroughs, in pushing the limit, found himself in the wilderness of what ‘limit’ sometimes might imply. I don’t know about genius. Burroughs is a dirty writer. I don’t mean that pejoratively. He’s visceral, he’s excremental, and he pushes the boundaries, I suppose. Like many French writers of the 19th century: Baudelaire, de Lautréamont, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. He reminds me of Michel Foucault, actually. Foucault pushed the boundaries to the point that he thought that if he went to every bath house in San Francisco, say, he might just cheat AIDS, circumvent it somehow. I don’t know if that makes sense, but there is an adventurism, a great daring in the way that Foucault crossed over in his writing, and I think, perhaps, Burroughs does the same too. Burroughs doesn’t strike me as being the great writer that Mailer claims for him. I think Burroughs did things that people didn’t dare do, or simply couldn’t/wouldn’t do. If that makes him a great writer, fine. Rimbaud, who must have influenced Burroughs, was equally strange, equally courageous, a poetic genius who gave things up to become an arms dealer, of all things. In a way, Burroughs was like Rimbaud; but he simply ‘gave up’ writing later than Rimbaud who quit writing poetry at nineteen.
What’s your take on Burroughs’ drug addiction? What effect do you think it had on his work?
It seems to me to be part and parcel of what it was to be a Beat. You know if it wasn’t LSD, it was peyote. If it wasn’t peyote, it was marijuana. If it wasn’t marijuana, it was Benzedrine. I’m not tremendously sure what they took. Whatever Timothy Leary suggested, I guess!
But he was a life-long opiate addict. Physically he resembled that; pale, skinny…
I suspect there are reasons why people do what they do. Once again, I think Junky pushes the boundaries. It’s a book that hadn’t been written before. It makes de Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater seem quite tame. The closest one is perhaps a book by the Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi whose Cain’s Book describes the life of an addict living on a barge in New York. I don’t have any take on Burroughs’ drug addiction at all. Rimbaud had deliberately dirty teeth. He and Verlaine misbehaved in public, at dinner parties. One of the things Baudelaire liked to do – though I think this may be apocryphal – was throwing flowers into the Paris pissoirs and watching them disintegrate in the urine. Burroughs watched himself in the mirror, presumably, disintegrating. But then he never seemed to. He lived until he was 80 something. He had criminal friends who presumably kept him supplied. He had money for drugs. Not as much money as everyone said he had, despite his family’s adding machine business. Coleridge was an opium addict. It eventually killed him, but in his last years he was cared for by a concerned doctor in London. I think over the years, Burroughs was in the care of lots of people, one of the people who cared for him was Ginsberg. Not physically, but cared for the phenomenon of William Burroughs. Ginsberg, who was a kindly man, arranged for Junky to be published, edited Naked Lunch, etc.
Ginsberg and Burroughs were both homosexuals. Do you think being vocal and open about their sexuality opened doors to the current struggle for gay rights?
Yes, but it’s not as if homosexuality, being gay, hasn’t been around for a while. I mean they were open about homosexuality. Extending sexual boundaries was part of being a Beat as much as it was exploring the possibilities of drugs and spiritual belief. I think the Beats may have opened the doors for gay rights, but Zen Buddhism in some respects and the spiritual power of search were things that kept them going. As for the homosexuality, I don’t know how important it was. They spent a lot of time in Tangier; it’s still an open city. It’s a lovely city too. In Europe, the Beats, for example, are preceded by the 1890s French symbolists, by Oscar Wilde. Burroughs was apparently as much into paid sex as Wilde was. I don’t know if that’s liberating or even how open Burroughs was a homosexual. There’s a photograph here in Caveney’s book of his having his toes sucked by Brion Gysin, a British painter. Is it his toe? I can’t tell. I think he liked to be photographed. Whether or not his being gay enhances his art, I don’t know. I think there was a real bond between all the men from Cassady to Kerouac, from Ginsberg to Orlovsky, from McClure to Corso. Burroughs liked men – despite having been married – men’s company, simple as that.
What do think of Ginsberg’s “Howl”?
It’s Ginsberg’s masterpiece. It reworks the Biblical rhythms, the insistencies of William Blake’s great poetry against a devouring world. Ginsberg looks for a common humanity in a dehumanizing, consumer-driven post 1945 America. It’s very democratic like Whitman’s poetry. You can’t have a democracy unless you include all people in it. If you exclude gays, for example, then you don’t have a democracy. When Ralph Waldo Emerson was appalled by some of Whitman’s notions, he told him to clean up his act, and Whitman – I imagine – must have said something like “I can’t, because if we want a union, then that union includes people like me who fall in love with men on trams”.
Do you agree with the notion that Ginsberg was the Beat Generation’s leader?
Yes. Howl is the seminal poem. To go back to Burroughs, if it wasn’t for Ginsberg we wouldn’t have Junky as it is, perhaps. It would have never been published. And Naked Lunch, which is the better book, if you can call it that, was edited by Ginsberg. Yes, he’s important. The thing about Ginsberg too was that he was nice to people, a nurse, a wound-dresser like the great Walt. He helped writers whom he believed had talent, rather like Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Kenneth Rexroth. This is one of the things I have always liked about him as a man. Ginsberg was nice despite the rage. Howl is a very angry poem. Ginsberg looked at America in 1950 understanding that he was a different kind of American. Compare them to the “greatest generation” which came back from Normandy and the Pacific and was venerated as the saviors of the new world. The Beats felt left out. The intelligentsia especially felt left out. This is why I think writers like Ginsberg congregated in places like Columbia University in New York City and the University of California- Berkeley in San Francisco.
They broke those old 50s patterns of thought and behavior. Instead they had hedonism, spontaneity, inconformity…
The Ur-Text for all them, it seems to me, whether it’s Corso or Ginsberg, Kerouac or Burroughs is British Romantic poetry. The Romantic poets were rebels, mostly young men (with Mary Wollstonecraft) who felt that a millennial moment was at hand in 1789 with the revolution of France and its enormous social possibilities. Then there was the disappointment of the Terror in 1793 and the split between the younger and older Romantics. Wordsworth and Coleridge were on one side; Byron, Shelley and Keats on the other. Blake was much older, but a revolutionary all the same. All of them, at various stages of their poetic careers wanted to – as Ezra Pound said much latter – “make in new.” There was a common rebelliousness, a common belief in the possibilities of a new world order based on freedom and justice and equality and fraternity and sorority, at least in the western world. There was an enjoyment in the role of the outsider. Look at… Burroughs. There’s an outsider for you. William Burroughs, the man in the gray flannel suit who never moved, the man with long fingers, the man who wrote Naked Lunch, the man who’s a junky, the man who liked rent boys – I’m guessing – the man who knew and liked Jean Genet, Paris, its grime. He was fascinated by criminals, Times Square lowlifes whose circumstances I believe he empathized with. There’s a Shelleyan quality to almost all the men we’ve been talking about. Shelley was the arch-rebel. Shelley gave away his shoes to a beggar in Ireland. He didn’t ask for them back. Metaphorically, his poetry dares you to do the same. He was ‘sent down’ from Oxford for his atheistic views. When his body was cremated on an Italian beach, his heart refused to burn. That’s as good as you get!
The Beat Hotel in Paris.
What I think attracted the Beats to Paris was Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Perhaps it was the studied eccentricity of the poet Nerval and his pet lobster. I think the peeling splendor of Rue Git-Le-Coeur in the 6th arrondissement and its grungy ‘Class 13’ hotel also appealed to them. I’m guessing that they found Tangier much more liberating. They could smoke hashish in the streets, they couldn’t get picked up for particular things, soliciting, say, and they could live relatively open as gays – those of them that were, that is. As for hard drugs, I don’t know. Tangier always strikes me as being the city of the Beats, with the exception of San Francisco and New York, not Paris.
I thought initially that Paris is where you’d seen them perform.
No, I saw them in the American Midwest. I mean, how perfectly junky. Remember Madison is halfway between Columbia and Berkeley!
Any thoughts on On the Road and its lasting influence?
It’s not a book that I’ve found easy to read. Why should it be? But, I do recognize its importance. Dean Moriarty appeals to me. You could say that he’s one of the sources of rap music. Recently a first edition sold for $12,500. Kerouac’s road novels aside, I think where the Beats excelled was the poetry. Corso – remember his “I Am 25”? – “with a love a madness for Shelley”- and Ginsberg were excellent poets. On the Road has lasted, though. It’s a post-Romantic book. Homo viator, man on the road. It’s about two men traveling in Mexico, two men talking, getting into scrapes, falling out with each other. It’s a cool book.
Going back to the performance you saw. When you think back, what sticks out?
I think the thing that made William Burroughs different was the fact that he sat still, oh, and his fingers. That might seem odd. I was totally struck by how somber, how sinister he looked. I thought that Burroughs might not be a man you’d want to find yourself in a room with alone. He struck me as threatening, but then I think that his writings are threatening. To go back to the question about whether he’s a genius or not, perhaps he is because the greatest literature should threaten you in some way: make you think, make you change, make you act. The best of Shelley’s poetry dares you to give away your shoes; if you don’t then you’ve failed the task. I don’t think Burroughs dares you to the needle or dares you into the underworld off Times Square, but there was something singularly odd and different about him, whether you understand it or not. Remember that photograph of him asleep fully clothed on a Tangier beach while Kerouac and Orlovsky beef-cake for the photographer? I’m not sure anything means in Burroughs – nothing has to mean, by the way – but he was a phenomenon and a presence. I think probably I thought he seemed rather evil. I’d just gotten back from Africa when I saw the tickets on sale so I went with my friends Ann, Mike, Marsha, Bob, Ina, and Berger. They’re all Beats still. Someone we knew was writing a doctoral dissertation on the Beats. It was a spectacle and good theater. Burroughs was good theater, it seems to me still. If you look at his face, there’s something quite frightening there. He looked so respectable too. Look at the socks, look at the shoes, the cuffs, the trousers, the hat, and the jacket – but underneath the jacket, of course, he’s wearing a Moroccan jilaba. I love that. Burroughs clearly influenced everybody from Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain. Somebody once said that Burroughs is as American as the electric chair.
I think that’s a great quote.
Yes, I think it is too. I’m not quite sure what it means. In a way, I think that’s what strikes me about him.
Oh yes, and dangerous. I mean his writings seem to steal fire. They don’t have the quiet Zen, the environmental concerns of Gary Snyder’s poetry, say. But, like Foucault, his notions in their own shockingly Promethean way are dangerous, challenging. Ginsberg, despite the epic rage in Howl, doesn’t strike me as dangerous as Burroughs. Ginsberg viewed his generation as misunderstood and misused just as Shelley understood the tyrannical England of 1819. Burroughs was a gentleman junky. Taken as a metaphor, ‘junkies’ are dangerous people. The best writers strike me as dangerous. Burroughs seems to convey an underworld most of us don’t want anything to do with. Some of the depths that Burroughs touched, or was involved with ultimately seem to have bogged him down in the unknown territory of “limit.” Foucault crossed over, and it killed him. Rimbaud crossed over and became ostensibly someone else, even, according to his sister, accepting Christ on his deathbed. When Kurt Cobain died, I wondered if Burroughs had had something to do with it.
Kurt Cobain was a heroin addict as well, but he didn’t even live to be thirty.
Burroughs died when he was 80 something. Perhaps moving to Kansas cured him. It might have. More so than Rimbaud, I guess, Jean Genet was a perfect model for Burroughs. The petty thief who wrote great books about incarceration, sex, a terrible upbringing – none of which Burroughs had. Genet who was raped in prison or reform school – I forget which – is venerated in France. One of the reasons that Burroughs is so famous in France is because the French like boundary jumpers. Foucault, to the Left, is a God, or was. Philosophers are venerated like rock stars in France. So is Jean Genet. Thieves, murderers, Genet, Burroughs, even the anti-Semitic Céline have a special place in French culture. In Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book – if my memory serves – there’s one sequence in which the hero Joe Necci makes love to woman on some rolling logs. One of the things that he enjoys most about it is that she’s an amputee. I don’t know if that’s supposed to shock you, it’s like punk hairdos or Sid Vicious on stage. Without reading the book, there’s something shocking about the cover of Junky especially when you remember that the man who wrote it looked so much like an accountant. (Points at book) This is a lost look, don’t you think?
Even the way he spoke was kind of strange.
Yes, sepulchral. Like a funeral director. On the other hand, Noel, in some respects I’ve often thought that it was all just a joke – a joke played by Burroughs on all of us. That we can venerate the excremental, the anal, dirt under the fingernails, people who we spend a lot of time avoiding in life because they’ll steal from you, or stab you in the back, transport you to Auschwitz, have you killed. I think Burroughs meant to leave a bad taste in your mouth. Like Bosch or Breugel. Perhaps, however, there is also a monumental empathy at work that ‘cares for the lost souls, for the shoeless of the earth.’ That’s Naked Lunch; chew on that one.
William Burroughs’ brother read “Naked Lunch” and said that it repelled him.
Samuel Beckett, by the way, had a brother who also disapproved of his writings. If Burroughs’ brother disapproved of him, then Beckett and he are in the same camp. Beckett often didn’t quite know how to say what he wanted to say so we are left with what he said – remember Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot ? – so if that’s the case with Burroughs, we are similarly left with what he had to say, what he felt. Is he great? Well, he’s different. In a way I think he is great, but I don’t know how, I’m not sure in what way. There was something so much more innocent if you were a Beat and you dressed in a beret and glasses and had a goatee and looked like Dizzy Gillespie, you know? I think Burroughs must have struck everyone in that auditorium as sinister, a touched old man with deep secrets, dark visions.