It has always struck me as somewhat ironic that the Beat Generation writers (and other countercultural artists) are subject to academic scrutiny. Not that it is entirely wrong, but there is something almost amusing about an overly academic approach to a thoroughly non-academic movement.
It was refreshing, then, to encounter ruth weiss: Beat Poetry, Jazz, Art (De Gruyter, 2022), which bucks the trend in terms of academic studies by hybridising forms to create something I would term more Beat appropriate. Beginning with a refreshingly readable preface from A. Robert Lee, this volume then moves on to an artistic celebration of the book’s subject. There are poems (and other creative works) by Anne Waldman, John Wieners, Tate Swindell, S.A. Griffin, Neeli Cherkovski, and others. Lines like “60 fuckin years mate! holy hell!” are an amusing break from convention. Odd though this may seem, it is rather more in-keeping with the Beat ethos than the usual formal and formulaic approach. It seems apt to honour such a creative and rebellious personality in this way.
Part two is more conventional, comprised of essays about ruth’s life and art. It begins with Benjamin J. Heal looking at travel. When noting the importance of travel on the Beat Generation, he explains that ruth weiss was already abroad in America. Having been both in Europe, the US was a foreign land to her and English was a second language. In a related essay, Stefanie Pointl looks at ruth as a “postnational” artist. This essay looks at her travels and background, noting that weiss is too often omitted when the subject of travel is raised in relation to the Beats – a glaring omission.
Following this is a wide-ranging essay on weiss and gender. Estíbaliz Encarnación-Pinedo writes of weiss’ creative use of English, saying that it came “naturally to German-born weiss, who has expressed her preference for English as a ‘new + crude language […whose] rules are riddled with exceptions – unlike other tongues that make for a rigid tradition.’” She goes on to say that “weiss favors an approach focused on lived experience above and beyond exclusionist or reductionist divisions between the sexes.”
A particular highlight is Polina Mackay’s essay, “ruth weiss and the Poetics of the Desert,” which draws religious comparisons in exploring the desert as a “theological symbol” but also a poetic one. It also examines the Americanness of the desert. This is, of course, an examination of weiss’ Desert Journal (1977).
Chad Weidner then looks at three of weiss’ books (South Pacific, Blue in Green, Desert Journal) “to reveal ways the texts engage in environmental discourse.” He calls weiss “a proto-ecocritic, utilizing inventively poetic allusions and regenerative language that speak to the core of environmental thought.” Interestingly, Weidner also draws comparisons between weiss and William S. Burroughs. He refers to their “composting” of language, linking Burroughs use of “linguistic montage” with weiss’ Desert Journal.
The next three chapters look at weiss and jazz, with Peggy Pacini exploring her performance as an oral poet. It closely analyses weiss’ reading at the 2007 Summer of Love festival and is a quite fascinating approach to poetic study. Pacini picks apart weiss’ performance in various ways, from noting the different order of poems in her oral reading compared with print publication to the absence of jazz accompaniment, the changing volume of her voice, and the movements of her body. weiss’ reading is analysed here in minute detail and is, like the poetry at the beginning of the volume, a nice and apt change from the usual essays.
The final chapters look beyond ruth weiss as poet and explore her work as a multidisciplinary artist, primarily looking at her paintings and work in film.
The book ends with Thomas Antonic’s “The ruth weiss Papers,” which examines the current state of weiss’ archive, and a bibliography compiled by Antonic and Paul Pechmann. Combined, these provide a good overview of weiss’ career as a writer and as a guide to what is currently available to scholars looking to delve further into the life and work of this often-overlooked Beat poet.