Reviews

Review: The Beats, Black Mountain, and New Modes in American Poetry

The latest in Clemson University’s Beat Studies series is The Beats, Black Mountain, and New Modes in American Poetry, edited by Matt Theado. Beginning with Theado’s introduction, it explains some of the core challenges facing the contributors, including the fact that the Beats and Black Mountain writers were “a jumble of intriguing personalities” and that there were few clear distinctions between the groups. We apply labels in retrospect to “make it easier to create study guides,” Theado explains. The book, then, aims to look at the “interaction and alignment among the poets,” and it is divided into three sections:

  1. Interactions
  2. Themes
  3. Society

Interactions

The first section begins with an essay by A. Robert Lee, who explores The New American Poetry, a landmark volume edited by Donald Allen, which presented a mixture of work from across the Beat-Black Mountain groups, asking how and why various poets were chosen for inclusion.

Luke Walker then explores Allen Ginsberg’s interactions with the Black Mountain poets. He begins with Ginsberg’s amusing and paradoxical observations of their work as “crappy” and “tight-assed,” yet also quite good. After some social interaction between the two groups, Ginsberg began promoting Black Mountain writers as he did the Beats. He even co-edited (with Robert Creely) Black Mountain Review 7, which featured a number of Beat writers.

Most Beatdom readers will be aware of the importance of William Carlos Williams on the Beat writers (particularly Allen Ginsberg), but perhaps fewer will know that he was influential on the Black Mountain poets, too. Paul Cappucci explores these connections and again talks about Black Mountain Review 7, framing it as “an intriguing bridge across poetic generations” for its arrangement of work by Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, and Williams.

Finally, Steven Belletto writes about the little magazine, Yugen – “a showcase for writers of ‘different schools’.” (Belletto wrote about little mags in another recent Clemson title.) Here, he explores LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s sexism in his account of the magazine’s origins and then attempts to deconstruct Gregory Corso’s poem, “For Black Mountain,” before looking at the rejoinder that came from Gilbert Sorrentino.

Themes

Part two kicks off with George Hart sharing a fascinating perspective on that most critical of literary tools – the typewriter. Here, he looks at it as akin to a musical instrument and explores its use by two very different typists: Jack Kerouac and Larry Eigner. Kerouac could supposedly type more than 100 words per minute and Eigner, who had cerebral palsy, could manage barely 10. Hart explores the idea of “typewriter-as-tape-recorder” and “typetalking” in regards how this device allowed poets to produce work quickly, but most interesting was his contention that, contrary to Kerouac’s notion of “blowing” (ie writing like a horn), the typewriter was more like a drum:

The typewriter is the percussive instrument by which Beat-Black Mountain poetics hammers space-time onto the page.

Eric Keenaghan then looks at the poetry of John Wieners. Whilst the gay voices of the Beat poets are well known and studied, perhaps Wieners is underappreciated. This essay suggests why that might be, as it is hard to pin down his poetic aims. Keenaghan presents Wieners as using “coded” language and being reluctant to speak frankly on homosexuality in his work, yet elsewhere he was explicit and even derided in the gay community for being too flamboyant and effeminate. Despite being both gay and trans, Wieners was encouraged by the notoriously masculine Charles Olson.

There is an interesting essay by Kurt Hemmer on Edward Dorn’s Gunslinger, which he explores as a simulacrum, defined here as “a copy of a copy without an original.” This is compared with Jack Kerouac’s writing in terms of Western myth and humour, as well as their interest in film, with Gunslinger having been inspired by the spaghetti western genre.

Dorn is also the focus of the next essay, by Daniel Belgrad, which looks at how he and Gregory Corso responded to the H-bomb. Corso’s poem, “Bomb,” is perhaps the most famous anti-nuclear poem of the era, but Dorn loathed and even parodied it. He did not appreciate Corso’s humour, which Belgrad explains as such:

Corso found that, like the bikini bathing suit named after its testing grounds, the hydrogen bomb was powerfully sexy; it was literally a bombshell; a blockbuster.

This section of the book wraps up with Nancy Grace looking at the letters of Diane di Prima and Charles Olson, which she calls “hybrid epistolary poems” and then John Wrighton looks at the poetry of Denise Levertov, a fascinating figure who did not fit neatly into the Beat-Black Mountain poetic groupings:

Although her work appears in anthologies dedicated to Beat and Black Mountain poetry, Levertov herself did not identify with the labels Beat, Black Mountain, or Woman poet, and the measure of her poetry lies solely on its individual quality.

Society

The final section of the book begins with Barbara Montefalcone, who explains that the Beat Generation writers tended to be quite collaborative and multidisciplinary by comparison with their Black Mountain counterparts. In particular, the Beats were very inspired by visual art and even pursued this to some extent, with Kerouac painting and Burroughs engaging in shotgun art. Even Ginsberg, who loved to peruse the art galleries of Europe, enjoyed illustrating his writings, and they all to some extent engaged in film and audio recordings. The Black Mountain writers, however, were more interested in the layout of words on a page.

The Beats were famous for their appreciation of jazz music, particularly Jack Kerouac, and indeed Kerouac is known for his attempts to create a form of written jazz with his spontaneous bop prose. Yet at the same time as this was happening, Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley was similarly influenced by bebop, and this is the focus of an essay by Fiona Paton.

Next, we have an essay by Erik Mortenson that asks, “Should colleges teach students how to live and, if so, how should they do it?” To provide answers, he looks at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa and, of course, Black Mountain. He writes:

Olson taught writing as a way to intervene in the moment as an act of Will that refashioned history on the page. [Anne] Waldman and Ginsberg took an opposite tack, arguing for writing as a process that disclosed thought as a path to better understanding the self.

Mortenson compares these two approaches, pointing out their strengths and weaknesses. For example:

Accounts of Ginsberg’s teaching are generally positive, but nevertheless problems did arise. As with Olson, Ginsberg could be narrow and prejudiced in his beliefs. Despite a stated desire to “give the students permission to be as intelligent as they secretly are,” Ginsberg rarely tolerated deviations from his own style of poetry. [Marc] Olmsted, an admirer of the poet, admits that “if a student wavered into surrealism or language poetry, he was going to get some flack from Allen.” For a teacher devoted to the idea of each student exploring their own mind, Ginsberg often ended up praising work that was similar to his own.

The book finishes with a personal essay examining the work of Fielding Dawson, neither quite Beat nor Black Mountain, but nonetheless loosely related to each. He both taught in prisons and wrote about teaching in prisons. His sympathetic depictions of prisoners – humanising them where other media tends towards demonisation – draws comparison to the Beat writers who were so enamoured of their underworld criminal friends.

Altogether, this is a useful and diverse volume. Given how easily writers of the 1950s and 60s are lumped together, and how artificial the categories are that unite or divide them, it is important to have work like this that examines the interplay between Beat and Black Mountain, providing more insight into these often very different yet sometimes overlapping groups, each reacting to a fast-changing world and churning out art that remains, more than half a century later, influential and engaging.

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the Weird Cult, World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller, and High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism.

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