Love or hate him, venerate or revile him, the life and work of William Seward Burroughs continues to inspire and intrigue. In addition to “The Work,” since his death in 1997 we have seen further biographies, celebrations, collections of letters, and critical studies, as well as restored and even previously unpublished texts. There has been reassessment and re-examination of various aspects of the life and work, starting with Burroughs and Homosexuality in Jamie Russell’s Queer Burroughs, Burroughs and Literature in Michael Stevens’ The Road to Interpose (an encyclopaedic study of “reading Burroughs’ reading” that is surely essential to fan and scholar alike); and more recently, Mayfair Burroughs in the introduction to Graham Masterton’s Rules of Duel. Continue Reading…
Archives For naked lunch
By Neil Reddy
Originally published in Beatdom #14
There are two questions that have to be asked about Beat movies. What do we want and why can’t they get it right?
If we’re looking for Beat movies as in expressions of the flow and rhythm of Beat poetry and Jazz Bebop, then you have to go to the source material: Pull My Daisy (1959), or The Flower Thief (1960), or Howl (2010). If you want to get derivative, try any college arts course or gifted YouTube contributor – if you can’t find them there, then get on your laptop and build your own. But, if you’re looking for fictional movies about the poets and the Beat Generation, then the latter question remains valid – why can’t they get it right?
It seemed to go wrong from the off with The Beat Generation (1959), which stole the title Kerouac had planned to use on Pull My Daisy. The Beat Generation is nothing more than a sleaze noir flick whose villain, a serial rapist no less, has Beat connections and “makes the scene” to find his victims. (It also includes a scuba diving chase scene which I’ve yet to discover any reference to in the Beat oeuvre.) The British contribution, Beat Girl (1960), was also sleaze-based, although more coffee bar centric and lacking any scuba scenes. It was just another moralistic tale, warning of the dangers of fast living and weird teenage kicks. Alas, the high pinnacle of these two masterpieces in bilge was not to be maintained. Since those heady days, the genre has repeatedly fallen flat on its face with badly scripted melodramas like Heart Beat (1980), or the incident led biopics Kill Your Darlings (2013) and Beat (2000), but, while being competent films, their Beat element is almost superfluous.
Some valiant efforts have been attempted. The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997), does well to catch the cultural context which many of the other films fail to do, and On the Road (2012), did well to get across the feel of its source material even though some of the alterations were difficult to understand – why is Sal mourning the death of his father when it’s the break-up of his marriage in the novel?
Naked Lunch (1991), like the novel, stands alone and must be respected for its sheer audacity to exist at all but, again, its focus is not in capturing the energy of the creative milieu that made the Beats what they were; and therein lies the problem and what should be the solution to the problem. The actual act of writing is not cinematic – although Henry & June (1990) and Quiet Days in Clichy (1990) prove there are always soft porn options. It’s the interactions between these young men and women that could be, must be, film-worthy. So why don’t they film that?
On the Road (2012) captures some of this spark but does a better job of portraying the grind of the road which unfortunately dissipates the energy, conflict, and humour that must have been evident when the Beats were gathered. The “far out” premise of Pull My Daisy (1959) shows this to be true.
The British comedy film The Rebel (America knows it as Call me a Genius (1961)) may be one of the best non-Beat, Beat films ever made, as it doesn’t take the subject too seriously and yet manages to mock the art establishment and satirise European intellectualism, whilst capturing the stifling status quo that the Beats were kicking against.
So what do we want from a Beat movie? We need the colour and tone of Bird (1988); the social bite of Up the Junction (1968); the grime of Barfly (1987); the wit of Factotum (2005); and the exuberance of… dare I say Animal House (1978)? Perhaps not but you can see the problem.
In the end, perhaps we are asking or expecting too much from a commercial film industry. Perhaps our best hopes do lie with the YouTube generation? Think about selling your Beat movie proposal: “We want you to give us money to make a movie about a bunch of kids in the late 1940s and 50s who live together and write poetry and books and the movie needs to be funny, energetic, sexy, character-centred, contemplative, introverted and dialogue rich whilst lacking explosions, machines guns, and ethno-centrically vague but identifiable terrorists.” Really, who are we trying to kid?
It’s said a movie is ruined three times: when you write it, when you talk about it, and when you make it… so let me give you the opening scene to my movie and you can ruin the rest for yourself.
Black screen – music Mingus – opening scene viewed from above – daylight, summer field – girl with long hair opens copy of On the Road – camera beads in on page – flash montage of cultural icons – Lady Gaga, Obama, Bowie, Dylan, Nixon, Chi Guevara, Lennon, Kennedy, Monroe, James Dean, Elvis, Brando, Miles Davis etc. – the montage moves faster and faster until it fades into a crowded room where the Beats are laughing, smoking and reading their poetry.
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. Continue Reading…
But yet, but yet, woe, woe unto those who think that the Beat Generation means crime, delinquency, immorality, amorality … woe unto those who attack it on the grounds that they simply don’t understand history and the yearning of human souls … woe in fact unto those who those who make evil movies about the Beat Generation where innocent housewives are raped by beatniks! … woe unto those who spit on the Beat Generation, the wind’ll blow it back. — Jack Kerouac Continue Reading…
The notion of Burroughs as a farmer – even an inept one – may not sit right with readers of his work, or those familiar with the history of the Beats. Yet before he was William S. Burroughs the writer, he was Billy Burroughs the farmer, and this period in his life – although largely overlooked by biographers – greatly impacted his literary output. When you look closely at his work, the short period he spent as a farmer in the late 1940s keeps cropping up, and yet it is glossed over in the biographies as though of little consequence. But Burroughs considered his time in Texas as some of the happiest days of his life, and during this period he developed the routines and heard the stories that made some of his best work. Even in his most famous work, Naked Lunch, the landscape of Texas is described with allusions to his own crossings back and forth in search of pharmaceuticals, and of course in Junky there are numerous references.
Burroughs grew up in St. Louis, and whilst he talked often of its red-light districts and skid rows, he also enjoyed the parks and the gardens, and especially going duck-shooting with his father. He enjoyed hiking and fishing, too, but he was not naturally suited to the outdoors. He was in many respects a spoiled child, disliked by other adults, and considered weak and pathetic. He was sent by his parents to the Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, where the school song went, “Far away and high on the mesa’s crest/ Here’s the life all of us love the best!” and the boys learned camping, hunting, and fishing. Burroughs later claimed to have gained nothing from the experience except a hatred of horses, and especially hated that the school frowned upon reading as something “for sissies”, but it’s likely his life-long love of guns began here, and maybe even his interest in self-reliance.
At age thirteen, Burroughs read autobiography of Jack Black, You Can’t Win, and was captivated. “I was fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seeding rooming-houses, pool parlors, cat house and opium dens,” he said. From then on, it seems, Burroughs’ interests lay firmly within city limits, and for many years that’s where he remained.
The Beat Generation was in the early days an urban movement, set in New York City, among the neon lights and the fast paced life of the city. It played out in and around Columbia University between 1944 and 1946, with Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs at the centre, alongside a cast that included – at various times – Joan Vollmer, Edie Parker, Lucien Carr, Herbert Huncke, and Hal Chase. Burroughs delved further into the criminal underworld than his Beat friends, exploring Times Square at night and planning to rob banks, living out his Jack Black fantasies. He fancied himself as a bit of an outlaw, with the government and society as his enemies. Later, Kerouac attempted to find solace in the mountains and forests of California with Gary Snyder, and Ginsberg sought serenity in nature throughout his life, but Burroughs has always been viewed differently. Less interested in nature than the supernatural, it’s easier to picture him in some seedy drug den than in the great outdoors, and as such his best writing explores the landscape of cities rather than mountains or forests.
In April 1946, the members of the Beat Generation began to move apart. Burroughs was arrested because of a forged prescription for Dilaudid and briefly imprisoned before his father bailed him out. His case was tried in June, and the judge gave him the worst sentence he could think of for an over-privileged young first offender: “Young man, I am going to send you home to St. Louis for the summer.”
Back in St. Louis, Burroughs ran into Kells Elvins, with whom he’d written “Twilight’s Last Gleamings” years earlier. Together they dreamt up wild get-quick-rich schemes, before eventually settling on the idea of citrus and cotton farming. Elvins already owned twenty acres of citrus grove by this point, having inherited the land from his father, but he was what is known as a “gentleman farmer” – he owned the land, watched the profits, and left the work in the hands of his immigrant laborers (known commonly as “wetbacks” or “wets”). At harvest time he had around two hundred workers picking what Burroughs’ claimed was $50,000-$60,000 worth of grapefruit. Burroughs’ parents were of the opinion that life as a farmer would be altogether more wholesome than letting him run around the city, and in June 1946 gave him the money for his fifty acres down in Pharr, Texas. “Fifty of the finest acres in the valley,” he called it, referring to the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
During World War II, in an effort to keep the troops fed and clothed, the US government had pumped money into agriculture, particularly in areas like South Texas, where so called “Magic Valleys” allowed for year-round farming. The result was a boom in the industry, with men flocking to the land in order to make a quick buck. These were men like Burroughs and Elvins, who really knew little about farming, but were drawn to this macho pursuit, and the idea of sitting back on the ranch, shooting the shit as their men did the dirty work. Unfortunately for Burroughs, the war had ended before he made his move. Demand decreased and operating costs rose.
Later, in Mexico, Burroughs wrote his first novel, Junky. In it he speaks harshly of Pharr and the scams that brought “marks” like him to invest their money in what turned out to be a desert:
During the Twenties, real estate operators brought trainloads of prospects down to the valley and let them pick grapefruit right off the trees and eat it. One of these pioneer promoters is said to have constructed a large artificial lake and sold plots all around it… As soon as the last sale closed, he turned off the water and disappeared with his lake, leaving the prospects sitting there in a desert.
In 1987 he was telling a similar story in his novel, The Western Lands.
For Burroughs, this was no forced exile, and he certainly didn’t think he was the sort to be scammed. He always had a strong individualist mentality. In true Beat style, he disliked conventional society and the rules that it tried to force upon him. He wanted independence and self-sufficiency in his own private Wild West, where he could live by his own laws and not fear arrest for doing the things he loved (he returned to Pharr twice after drug busts). Rob Johnson, in his book, The Lost Years of William S. Burroughs: Beats in South Texas, suggests that Burroughs was also interested in creating his own socio-economic system that, in spite of his overtly conservative views at the time (not to mention his scorn for Ginsberg’s political leanings), appeared startling socialist.
Joan, meanwhile, was stuck in Bellevue, back in New York, having suffered a breakdown. Leaving Elvins in charge of the farm for the first, but certainly not the last, time, Burroughs enacted some brilliant timing by arriving in New York on October 31st, just before her release, and whisked her off to his new farm. En route, they later claimed, their child was conceived.
Farming, however, was not Burroughs’ forte, and for a while he convinced himself that he could become a wildcatter and drill for oil on his land (which inspired the famous “oilman” routine in Queer). But although he took it seriously and attempted to study farming as he had done with numerous other subjects during his life, nothing ever went well for him. Still, to his credit, during his short time in Pharr, it seems Burroughs remained somewhat interested in the running of operations, even if the hard work was done by his immigrant Mexican laborers.
The farmer did all the actual work. Evans (Elvins’s name in Junky) and I would drive around every few days to see how the cotton was looking… There was no point in looking at the cotton since neither of us knew the first thing about it.
From the offset, Burroughs found that his own private Wild West was not really as free from the law as he’d imagined. For a start, the border patrol was beginning to step up activities against illegal laborers, and even deported some of Burroughs’ workers. He didn’t like the government telling him what he could and couldn’t do, and was even more enraged when they tried to dictate what crops he could grow. He was convinced that the government was doing the bidding of “big holders” – industrial farmers with a thousand acres or more – who were trying to squash the little guy. Ever concerned about systems of control, Burroughs worried about being a “mark” and about being conned and manipulated by powerful forces. In Junky, he wrote:
The Big Holders are the house, and the small farmers are the players. The player goes broke if he keeps on playing, and the farmer has to pay or lose to the Government by default. The Big Holders own all the Valley banks, and when the farmer goes broke the bank takes over. Soon the Big Holders will own the Valley.
In a letter to Ginsberg, Burroughs explained this point, naming the “Benson Brothers” as the local Big Holders. “They just sit, and slowly the Valley falls into their hands,” he wrote, evidently unaware of the irony that he himself was mostly a wealthy, absentee landlord. “They are the financial beneficiaries of the U.S. wetback policy.” By this, Burroughs meant that small sharecroppers could only afford to stay in business by using immigrant labor, and that by deporting or regulating this workforce, small-time farmers would go bankrupt.
He found life in the valley somewhat depressing, and he referred to it in a letter to Kerouac as “the valley of heat and boredom”. Joan was unhappy, too. She loathed the local country club crowd and probably yearned for even more seclusion that their middle-of-nowhere property provided. (Years later, in their biographies, Barry Miles and Ted Morgan both failed to place Pharr on a map, somehow placing it in East Texas, despite acknowledging its proximity to the border.)
Burroughs empathized with the artist John Haughton Allen, who said of the area, “The best way to see the Southwest is through the bottom of a glass.” He and Elvins would drink heavily. The people who knew him during this period of his life knew him as an alcoholic, primarily. Burroughs’ friends were equally eccentric and all seemingly shared his passion for guns and drink. His stories from that period are wild, to say the least.
Most people, though, seemed to view Burroughs from a distance. They thought him odd. “Retarded” is one description that Johnson was given in an interview with some Pharr citizens. These citizens remember a Burroughs that matches well with the image of Kerouac’s Old Bull Lee – of an anti-social but occasionally enthusiastic oddball.
A major benefit of life in the Valley for Burroughs was its proximity to Mexico, where he had access to boys. None of his neighbours appeared aware of his sexuality, but he made occasional trips to Reynosa, a border town, where he was outed and became known as Willie El Puta – or Willie the Queer. Despite this indignation, he was captivated by Mexico for such freedoms that were tolerated more than in America.
One problem that Burroughs faced in Pharr was that his visions for a farm didn’t stop with citrus and cotton. Although in the beginning he was writing letters to Ginsberg that claimed he would make ten thousand dollars mailing oranges around the United States as gift baskets, what he really wanted were vast fields of opium poppies and marijuana. Unfortunately, “the Valley” wasn’t in fact a valley, and the land was as flat as could be, with everyone able to see what he was growing. So in December 1949, only six months after arriving in the Valley, and only a month after arriving with Joan, Burroughs left Elvins in charge of the farm and moved to East Texas, on Winters Bayou, between Coldspring and New Waverley, 50 miles northeast of Houston. “Man, are we ever in Hicksville,” he wrote of the property which was at least a mile from the nearest road.
Its seclusion was bliss for Burroughs, who by some accounts couldn’t even get his jeep near the cabin and had to walk quite a distance. They were surrounded by trees – mostly hardwoods – and swamps. There were a lot of snakes and scorpions but the family could bathe and fish, with huge catfish inhabiting the swamps. The landscape pleased Burroughs, and reminded him of his Missouri childhood. Even Joan was somewhat happy out in the middle of nowhere, and was glad to be away from the snooty types they knew in Pharr. Burroughs described it:
It was heavy timber. Oak and persimmon, not too much pine. The kind of country that starts in Southern Missouri and goes all the way down to east Texas. There were raccoons and foxes and squirrels and armadillos.
Here, Burroughs had ninety-nine (or ninety-seven, depending on the source) acres of land, where he did indeed have the required privacy to grow what he wished. Not much grew in that red soil, including the opium poppies, but the marijuana worked out. Burroughs lived out his new life as a gentleman farmer quite happily, with Joan and her daughter Julie, and even Herbert Huncke living with them, running errands such as Benzedrine trips to Houston. Burroughs got himself a small hound dog, and patrolled his land with it at his heel, cutting wood and shooting things. There was, in fact, so much gunfire on the property that his neighbours believed the area to be a gangster hideout.
Burroughs also spent a lot of time at the local general store, which was – and still is – owned by the Ellisor family. Andrew and Arch Ellisor would stand around telling stories, which Burroughs greatly enjoyed. A number of odd little background stories in his books came from old men in Texas, and these ones eventually became significant in the creation of The Place of Dead Roads. Of course, in this novel the character of Arch was loosely based upon Arch Ellisor.
On July 21st 1947, Joan gave birth to Burroughs’ only son, William Seward Burroughs III, who was born addicted to Benzedrine, and had a difficult life from the beginning. He was just another part of the odd and ever-intoxicated Burroughs family.
Even as a farmer, Burroughs rarely went without his trademark suit and tie. He woke late, gathered his mail and the papers, and spent his days on the porch of their weather-beaten little cabin, reading stories to his disinterested wife. Joan for the most part tended to the children and made the food, whilst also famously scraping lizards off a tree with a rake. Huncke seemed to be the only one doing much work, as in addition to fetching drugs and alcohol from nearby towns, he also took the role of groundskeeper.
They all drank heavily and seemed to be continually high. They constantly had to search further afield for drugs and alcohol as they “burned down” their local supplies and managed to drink an entire county dry. Sometimes they had to go as far as Houston to score anything at all. Although Burroughs seemed to go through similar troubles wherever he lived, these particular adventures found their way into Naked Lunch.
Burroughs seemed genuinely happy during these years. Moreover, he appeared to take farming seriously. J.G. Ballard once wrote that Burroughs was “one of the least likely people ever to worry about a carrot crop,” but his letters to Kerouac and Ginsberg were always full of excited updates over the status of his lettuces and peas. He seemed always convinced about being on the edge of great riches. These details, however, are usually followed by stories of minor disasters like the weather (the Magic Valley that he was sold appears to have been a myth; winter freezes killed a lot of his produce) and unusual market fluctuations.
Back on his Pharr farm, the work was still being carried out by “wetback” workers, who toiled in awful conditions. Ginsberg let Burroughs know that he didn’t approve of the low wages these workers earned, who he believed should be guaranteed a minimum wage, and Burroughs himself seemed distressed by the labor brokers, one of whom claimed to have shot dead two wetbacks. In letters, though, Burroughs claims to have shared some of his wealth with the workers, causing suspicion among neighboring farmers. Still, Burroughs noted that he was ethically in a more dubious position than when dealing heroin in New York:
In short, my ethical position, now that I’m a respectable farmer, is probably shakier than when I was pushing junk. Now, as then, I violate the law, but my present violations are condoned by a corrupt government.
On August 30th 1947, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady arrived in New Waverly, having hitchhiked from New York. Ginsberg was enraged by the fact that Burroughs hadn’t prepared even a bed for them to sleep in, but helped Huncke, who’d offered to take apart the furniture in his own room to build a large bed for the two visitors to share.
Despite problems between Ginsberg and Cassady, and the shock of arriving to find nothing prepared, their stay was fairly pleasant. Cassady helped Burroughs fence-in the property and they all had long talks and walked endlessly in the woods. Eventually Cassady – who was tired of Ginsberg’s physical and emotional demands – convinced Allen to leave, and stayed on to help Burroughs with the pot harvest.
Neal drove Burroughs and the marijuana back to New York, where they struggled to sell it. Unfortunately, Burroughs knew nothing of how to cure marijuana and had mixed male and female plants, resulting in low-grade ditchweed. Eventually he managed to get $100 for the entire crop, and was glad to be rid of it. A few years later, he wrote in Junky, “Pushing weed looks good on paper, like fur farming or raising frogs.”
In New York, Burroughs picked up another junk habit, and spent January 1948 in rehab at Lexington, Kentucky. In May, believing that “Farm work is the best cure [for junk sickness],” Burroughs attempted to return to Pharr and purchased forty additional acres of farmland. On the way to Pharr, however, he and Joan were arrested somewhere between Pharr and New Waverly for having sex by the side of a road. “Things very uncool in Texas,” he wrote Kerouac. Burroughs had been drunk at the time and consequently lost his license. It was decided that the family would move out of “Hicksville” and take residence in New Orleans, selling the East Texas farm and keeping the one in South Texas (which was still being run by Elvins, or rather by the men that Elvins employed).
It was in New Orleans that the family was visited by Kerouac and Cassady, and forced to play host to Helen Hinckle, in days that were retold in On the Road. Burroughs later bemoaned the description of him and his home given by Kerouac in his classic road novel. When Kerouac visited, Burroughs was “living in a little house laid out like a railroad flat and raised up on the marshy lot by concrete blocks.” He didn’t even have a front yard. What Kerouac appeared to be describing was Burroughs’ farm in Pharr, a description presumably gleaned from their letters and from Cassady, who Burroughs claimed could exaggerate worse than Kerouac.
It was in New Orleans, too, that Burroughs got back on heroin, was arrested, and decided to flee from the United States. His dabbling Texas and Louisiana had informed him that true freedom could only lie south of the border. In April 1949 he returned once again to Pharr after trouble with the law, knowing that its proximity to the border would allow him a chance to escape should he need it. It was the frontier, America’s last Wild West, and yet it was not far enough for Burroughs. This time around he felt the Valley was hotter and duller than before, claiming that it was virtually free of “life force”. He sold his land to Kells Elvins and left in October. “What a relief to be rid of the U.S. for good and all,” he wrote Kerouac from Mexico City, “and to be in this fine free country.”
Although various sources claim that Burroughs was finished with farming from the moment he realized how much of a failure his marijuana crop had been, it appears that his interest had not entirely vanished, and certainly the memories were significant moments in his development. Burroughs planned to get into ranching in Mexico, but it turned out that this country lacked such freedom and he required a Mexican business partner. Still, he wrote to Ginsberg that if he managed to buy a ranch, it would bring him “unlimited opportunities.”
It was in Mexico City that he killed his wife and became a writer, and evidently farming and Texas were still on his mind during this period. There are numerous references littered throughout his first novel, Junky, indicating that Texas was not an unimportant phase between New York and Mexico, as seems to be suggested in most books about the Beats. Interestingly, a section describing South Texas was cut out of Junky because, according to Allen Ginsberg, “agricultural society was not germane to the funky harsh non-literary subject matter,” and only restored in the 1977 edition. Maybe farming wasn’t hip enough for his readers.
Later, in Peru, during his exploration of the South American jungle, Burroughs found himself decidedly turned off when stuck in a small farming town. ”Farming towns are awful,” he wrote Ginsberg. Yet he also wrote about his colonial fantasies: “You live like a king on a ranch while you are making $.” In Ecuador he yearned to live off the land once again, his fantasies of self-sufficiency and life as a farmer apparently overwhelming the reality of his failures.
Lee’s plans involved a river. He lived on the river and ran things to please himself. He grew his own weed and poppies and cocaine, and he had a young native boy for an all-purpose servant.
During his life, Burroughs developed passing interests in ecology and environmentalism that probably had their seed in those farming days, as he viewed the disappearance of the Wild West and difficult of maintaining isolation. He may not have spoken as clearly in favor of the environment as the likes of Gary Snyder, but throughout his body of work he clearly states that humans have ravaged the planet, and there is a definite sense that the cities and the influence of humanity are creeping outwards and consuming all that is natural. Ghost of Chance deals quite firmly with environmentalism and ecology, showing how people spread like a virus and destroy everything that they come in contact with. In it, a pirate, Captain Mission, “threatened to demonstrate for all to see that three hundred souls can coexist in relative harmony with each of their neighbors, and with the ecosphere of flora and fauna.” A humorous essay in The Adding Machine, called “The Great Glut”, jokingly attacks “ecologists, as well as Allen Ginsberg” for caring about the environment, before suggesting that all excrement and even human corpses be utilized as fertilizer. His descriptions of the vegetables that would result from such farming techniques mirror his earlier excitement about his own crops: “potatoes as big as watermelons, carrots six feet long, artichokes the size of washtubs.”
Burroughs remembered his time in Texas right into his final years. His last journal entries mention his days there, and his last ever story was about one of his neighbours in New Waverly, Arch Ellisor, who becomes a true Wild West character and flies in the face of the law, before shedding his skin and becoming Pan, god of the wild, and of nature, and of mountains and forests. Perhaps this story shows how much Burroughs came to romanticize his life in Texas near the end of his life.
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #11.
William Blake’s influence on the Beat Generation is arguably more significant than that of any other writer or artist. Most notably he was Ginsberg’s “guru” and the “catalyst” for his poetry, and even warranted a mention in “Howl”. Blake supposedly appeared to Ginsberg in 1945 and read “Ah Sun-flower”, and again in 1948 when Ginsberg was reading “The Sick Rose”. He explained,
I was never able to figure out whether I was having a religious vision, a hallucinatory experience, or what, but it was the deepest ‘spiritual’ experience I had in my life, and determined my karma as poet. That’s the-key pivotal turnabout of my own existence. That’s why I was hung up on setting Blake to music.
Visions were important to Blake, who claimed that his poetry was not necessarily a work that he created, but something channeled through him. He referred to himself as a “true Orator” and claimed that poetry came from a voice that he simply wrote down.
This isn’t too different from Williams S. Burroughs’ claim about the origins of his own weird prose:
I get these messages from other planets. I’m apparently some kind of agent from another planet but I haven’t got my orders clearly decoded yet.
It should also be noted that Burroughs was supposedly unable to recall writing any of the original material for Naked Lunch. However, Burroughs – who originally leant Ginsberg copies of Blake’s poetry when they first met, not long before Ginsberg’s famous vision – was dismissive of the mystical idea of visions, claiming that Blake simply saw things that others couldn’t see.
Blake’s method of transcribing words from the ether also seems to bear a strong resemblance to Kerouac’s fabled Spontaneous Prose, which shunned traditional ideas of composition and sought to grasp something holy from within. Although Kerouac named numerous influences on his style, just months before he died he wrote to Philip Whalen and told him that “Blake’s Jerusalem…is worth a fartune” (“fartune” being a Blakean spelling of “fortune”). Jerusalem was one of the poems Blake claimed to have dictated from a voice.
But perhaps even moreso than Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac, it was Michael McClure that took Blake has his greatest literary influence. Like Ginsberg, Blake also came to McClure in a vision, and the two men marveled over the difference in their perceptions of this visitor. McClure explained,
Allen has a Blake who is a Blake of prophecy, a Blake who speaks out against the dark Satanic Mills. My Blake is a Blake of body and of vision.
This short essay originally appeared in Beatdom #11.
by G.K. Stritch – find it on Amazon
The Mudd Club turned out to be a bittersweet place where I had my cherished camera stolen. It was dark and so packed you had to be on your guard, but that didn’t deter us. Jill, Daniel, and I went often. Our friend Richard Smith worked there, so not only did he let us in, but we didn’t pay either. The other hopefuls who awaited entrance looked at us longingly, in secret, as we, the downtown celebrities, slipped through the line. The club showcased a scene with all kinds of provocative people. Elderly-looking, avant-garde writer and opiate enthusiast William S. Burroughs participated as a frequent patron.
“Come here.” Richard Smith pulled us aside in his attempt to educate us. “That is the author William S. Burroughs. He wrote Naked Lunch and put a glass on his wife’s head and shot her dead through her forehead.” Our teacher waited for our reactions.
“Why did he do that?” I asked. Why wasn’t he in jail? I wondered.
“They were playing William Tell.”
We all looked at the elderly gent. He was a little younger than the ghostly clericus who appears in Drugstore Cowboy.
Old Bull Lee, dressed in a gray suit, lounged with one leg crossed over the other, undisturbed. A faint smile adorned his face. Perhaps he pondered his bizarre life or desired a Viennese waltz, or maybe he sat in a haze of H, remembering days in Putumayo or Algiers or his house in the New Orleans swamp. Or maybe he quietly recited Shakespeare in his mad old mind. Jill and I noted his presence and giggled and gazed at him. Never in our wildest imagination would we have thought of saying hello, but I wished I had. I wished I’d spoken to the old rascal, and I wished I’d done that terribly un-chic, un-hip thing and asked him for an autograph, or had the nerve to take a photo with him. I could have sat on his bony knee and that would have been a funny, funny picture. But sophisticated me did none of those things.
Knowing that Burroughs was an author of note, I tried to capture his worn face in my memory and grew fond of him from a distance, the way a child might like a scary figure in a horror movie. I probably won’t read Naked Lunch, but years later I did read excerpts from Junkie and was impressed by his brilliant, clear prose. Recently hearing a taped recording of Burroughs’s routines revealed a grouchy old man’s voice, and he reminded me of a mean doctor from my childhood. That very stern, creepy doctor had had no patience and pushed me out of his office. I didn’t know what Burroughs was talking about on the recording: Roosevelt and baboons with purple hindquarters—he hated bureaucracy and liberals—but I still found him most amusing. Burroughs proved his intelligence to me. How much better for him to dwell among the youth and vitality and live performance and pretty faces at the Mudd Club than to languish away at home or behind the doors of a senior facility. His drug administration must have been meticulously careful. He lived until the age of eighty-three. Perhaps one of the best insights into the colorful life of Burroughs is in On the Road: The Original Scroll.
“‘Hurry up, please. It’s time,'” called the bartender. We hurried. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “‘Goonight, Bill.'”
by Dr Madhu Mehrotra and Geetanjali Joshi Mishra
“Resolved to sing no songs henceforth but those of manly attachment”
“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.”
An Era of Sexual Liberation
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’”
Freedom and Love
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.