Beatdom Content

Virgules / After Cézanne

In his 1966 interview for The Paris Review, Ginsberg recounts his early preoccupation with Cézanne’s juxtaposition of color: “I suddenly got a strange shuddering impression looking at his canvases, partly the effect when someone pulls a Venetian blind, reverses the Venetian–there’s a sudden shift, a [flash]” (p. 25). During the fifties, the poet Gary Snyder introduced both Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to haiku, a poetic form in which Ginsberg found the means to emulate the effect produced by Cézanne’s aesthetic technique: “just as in the haiku you get two images which the mind connects in a flash” (p. 30). A decade later, Ginsberg’s statement for Writer’s Digest would trace the origins of American haiku to imagists such as Ezra Pound, noting that Pound turned to Chinese characters to juxtapose the “spacetime data” received by the senses through “clear word-pictures” that paralleled Cézanne’s representation of such data by contrasting planes of colors and geometric shapes (p. 255). Thus, from the flashes of sensation elicited by Cézanne’s paintings and haiku’s verbal imagery comes Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

This essay first appeared in Beatdom #19

Following his gradual conversion to Buddhism, Ginsberg’s attempt to emulate these flashes in consciousness would be described in terms of producing a gap or void in mind-flow and subsumed under the concept of Śūnyatā: habitual thought rejected by lack of prediction / gap / emptiness, which allows for organic change of consciousness. Essentially, Ginsberg’s turn to haiku as a means to follow Cézanne’s method is mirrored spiritually in his turn from Cézanne’s Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus [Father Omnipotent Eternal God] to Buddhist Śūnyatā.

But what of Cézanne? Is the painter’s influence on Beat aesthetic and technique confined solely to a founding portrayal of juxtaposition that Ginsberg adapted to the content of his poetry? Should Cézanne’s influence be so limited? The rhetorical structure naturally suggests “no.” The current response will posit that the temporary gap in mind-flow achieved by juxtaposition can be inserted physically into literary content normally within the scope of habitual consciousness, as opposed to Ginsberg’s use of deliberate and irrational juxtaposition to affect habitual consciousness. More concisely, the presented technique will propose to push Ginsberg’s verbal adaptation of Cézanne’s juxtaposition further towards a physical form through the use of the virgule. It will also be suggested that Ginsberg had in fact experimented with using virgules to create a structural gap in the common associations of habitual consciousness prior to the present formulation, as seen in his journal composition “Understand That This is a Dream.”

Approaching the idea of structurally inserting a gap between habitually associated content requires further articulation of Cézanne’s juxtaposition because it provides the basis for Ginsberg’s aesthetic technique in “Howl” from which the current thesis builds. It was Loran that introduced the term to Ginsberg, writing of Cézanne’s “juxtaposition of multicolored spots” or “variously colored little planes” as producing “abstract order” (Ginsberg, “The Art of Poetry” pp. 25-26; Loran pp. 14, 30, 29). To echo Paul Portugés’s essay on the subject, Ginsberg viewed these “space gaps” achieved by juxtaposition as capable of “[reaching] different parts of the mind” by forcing together dissimilar elements to create a void in habitual consciousness, each temporary disruption producing a “sensation of existence” or higher consciousness described as “Lord mind” and “Śūnyatā” (Ginsberg, “The Art of Poetry” pp. 28-29; Portugés pp. 150, 153, 155). Put succinctly, juxtaposition disrupts the habituality of conditioned consciousness to reach the spontaneity of unconditioned consciousness. Ginsberg would spend the several years prior to the publication of “Howl” developing a verbal equivalent to Cézanne’s technique, culminating in the description of the French painter as a saint “who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed” (“The Art of Poetry” p. 28; “Howl” p. 20). In Ginsberg’s own words, “The last part of ‘Howl’ was really an homage to art but also in specific terms an homage to Cézanne’s method, in a sense I adapted what I could to writing” (“The Art of Poetry” p. 28).

During this period, Gary Snyder’s relation of haiku to Ginsberg and Kerouac would prove vital to the production of “Howl” and Ginsberg’s larger oeuvre, because the Eastern form is characteristically one of associations (Kacian, pp. 306, 322). Ginsberg defines this primary characteristic of haiku effectively: “you have two distinct images, set side by side without drawing a connection, without drawing a logical connection between them the mind fills in this . . . space” (“The Art of Poetry” p. 29). The scholar and haiku poet Kenneth Yasuda equates a similar description of haiku to the practice of painting: “representation of the object alone, without comment, never presented to be other than what it is, but not represented completely as it is . . . . [the haiku poet] renders in a few epithets what he experiences, so that imagination will fill those spaces with all the details in which the experiential value of the images reside” (p. 7). Yasuda’s comparison articulates why Ginsberg’s desire to emulate Cézanne would make haiku such a conducive form because haiku and Cézanne’s post-impressionist style both seek to present images that elicit association from the viewer, rather than presenting an association between images to the viewer.

Embracing haiku’s use of juxtaposition to elicit associations between images, Ginsberg formed a verbal equivalent of Cézanne’s technique through the deliberate and irrational juxtaposition of words, as epitomized by “hydrogen jukebox” (“Howl” p. 11). The added element of irrationality to Cézanne’s technique was needed because habitual consciousness would otherwise fill the gap of associable things when using an oral or written medium. For example, “funky jukebox” provides no mental disruption or experience of void because the adjectival description exists within the scope of habitual consciousness. By comparison, the nouns hydrogen and jukebox lack the habitual association inherent in an adjectival relationship such as “funky jukebox” and thus force the mind to fill the created void in mind-flow by means of unconditioned association. Haiku provided an ideal framework for Ginsberg’s technique, because haiku as a poetic form emphasizes the use of nouns in composition through a focus on concrete imagery and brevity, as opposed to grammatical completeness. Essentially, the practice of haiku trains one’s mind to represent objects in a similar manner to Cézanne’s planar rendering of his optical sensations.

Here, the current thesis presents itself, asserting that the element of irrationality in Ginsberg’s technique is not a necessary requirement in the disruption of habitual consciousness because physical form can also produce a gap in mind-flow. To achieve such an effect, the present technique proposes a return to Cézanne’s use of parallel planes of contrasting colors in his representation of nature. Observing The Sainte Victoire, Seen from the Quarry Called Bibemus, for instance, Cézanne creates depth and the rounded volume of tree shapes through unblended color planes modulated from cool to warm. Loran provides an insightful description of the desired result that Cézanne’s technique achieves: “as these individual color planes overlap, sometimes as warm over cool, they are working three-dimensionally . . . . at the same time, since each plane tends to be separate, unblended, and flat . . . the color throughout maintains an essentially two-dimensional character” (pp. 64, 25). In translating Cézanne’s juxtaposition to poetry’s oral and written mediums, Ginsberg turned away from form and focused instead on the content of the poem to create a void in mind-flow, using haiku’s frequent focus on juxtaposed nouns to produce such an effect. However, such a gap can also be achieved through a focus on form; namely, by using virgules to physically disrupt associations while emphasizing the independence of content normally within the scope of habitual consciousness.

The example of the funky jukebox can be used to depict the technique. Beginning with “funky jukebox,” no disruption occurs because the adjectival relationship exists within the scope of habitual consciousness. Yet the insertion of a virgule between “funky / jukebox” provides a minor disruption because funky could now exist as modifying an unstated noun or as free indirect speech representing the experience of music upon the speaker. Thus, the reader observes the word funky, the virgule produces a minor gap, and the reader then locates the source of the adjective in the jukebox; an independence is physically suggested that briefly interrupts the adjectival relationship assumed by habitual consciousness.

One can further expand the gap or disruption produced by combining the virgule with more independent content.  For example, if we add to the previous two words:

funky jukebox playing pool smell of cigarettes

and then physically alter the form of the content:

funky / jukebox / playing pool / smell of cigarettes

the addition of virgules achieves an effect akin to the juxtaposition of Cézanne’s independent and overlapping color planes. Specifically, funky now has the previously mentioned interpretations in relation to the noun jukebox, but also becomes distributive to the smell of cigarettes. Further disruption occurs by inserting an activity between the distribution of the adjective, funky, where the subject playing pool is implied. The omission of the subject allows for an association between the noun, jukebox, and the verb, playing, that disrupts habitual thought by defying expectation; the noun is followed by a typical verbal relationship that is broken by the verb’s relation to an independent activity. Altogether, each fragmentary element of the phrase is given spatial independence that allows for new associations and provides each element with a new depth of meaning.

In comparison, the first example of unaltered content does not produce a temporary gap in mind-flow because it exists comfortably within the scope of habitual consciousness or thought: funky [describes] jukebox [and someone] is playing pool [surrounded by the] smell of cigarettes. There is no independence between the elements of the phrase such as that seen in Cézanne’s representation of nature; instead, the reader can follow a habitual path of focus.

There are of course better and less mundane examples than a funky jukebox capable of depicting the potential of the proposed use of virgules, which provides an effective transition to the claim that Ginsberg himself experimented with adapting Cézanne’s juxtapositions using both form and content. Seven years after the publication of “Howl,” one can observe Ginsberg uncharacteristically employ virgules in his journal composition “Understand That This is a Dream”:

When I dream in a dream that I wake / up what
happens when I try to move?


Then I wake up / dismayed / I was dreaming / I was waking
when I was dreaming still / just now. (p. 5, lines 6-7, 11-12)

First, Ginsberg disrupts habitual mind-flow by separating, as opposed to hyphening, the phrasal verb “wake up” (line 6). Such disruption is further accented by the fact that the verb wake by itself satisfies the activity within the sentence, the addition of “up” lacking the brevity or verbal precision Ginsberg adopted from haiku and thus seeming all the more purposeful in its inclusion. To expand upon the gap in the habitual construction and associations of the composition, Ginsberg proceeds to employ enjambment after the preposition “up” and the pronoun “what,” further adding to the independence and fragmentation of the divided content within the interrogative sentence (line 6). Accordingly, the question “When I dream in a dream that I wake-up, what happens when I try to move?” is removed from habitual mind-flow through the use of a single virgule and enjambment.

In the last quoted lines, Ginsberg presents one of the most potent uses of the virgule by allowing the physical juxtapositions of multiple events to compound in a manner that ultimately displaces the reader’s sense of sequence. The initial, independent activity of waking up is followed by the adjective “dismayed,” which has the potential to refer to two states of mind: (1) the speaker’s current state of mind after waking, “I wake up, dismayed,” or (2) the speaker’s state of mind during the activity of dreaming, “dismayed, I was dreaming I was waking when I was dreaming still” (lines 11-12). The virgules make it unclear as to how many times the speaker experienced waking up. Did the speaker awake after an experience of dreaming that he was awake, or was the speaker still dreaming when he experienced the sensation of waking up from a dream? Put another way, does the reader again “wake up . . .  when [] dreaming still, just now?” (lines 11-12). The effect of separating and contrasting the content of the phrase produces depth like that of Cézanne’s technique, but rather than using color, the poet alters consciousness by creating an oscillation between planes of common associations juxtaposed.

It may be the case that Ginsberg was not consciously seeking the creation of a form equivalent to the technique of juxtaposition seen in Cézanne’s paintings, but Cézanne’s influence on Ginsberg’s structural experimentation clearly manifests itself. Ginsberg’s journal composition parallels a cubist adaptation of Cézanne’s focus on shapes and the painter’s structuring of form through contrasting planes of color. The elements of the cited lines become planar, geometric arrangements focusing less on sequence and more upon depth through the contrast of each isolated element in its relation to a unified whole.  The present thesis certainly represents such a technique through the use of virgules, but the final lines cited in Ginsberg’s poem express a structural experimentation that is, at the very least, strikingly similar to Cézanne’s aesthetic. Regardless of whether Ginsberg had consciously intended to use virgules to emulate Cézanne’s planar features, the hope is that this examination has articulated the potential in structurally adapting Cézanne’s juxtaposition to a written medium.

Works Cited

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1956, pp. 11, 20.

Ginsberg, Allen. “The Art of Poetry No. 8.” The Paris Review no. 37, Spring1966, pp. 25-26, 28-29, 30.

Ginsberg, Allen. “Understand That This is a Dream.” Airplane Dreams: Compositions from Journals. 1968. San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1969, p. 5, lines 6-7, 11-12.

Ginsberg, Allen. “What Way I Write,” Writer’s Digest vol. 40, no 10, 1960, Rpt. in Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995. By Allen Ginsberg. Edited by Bill Morgan, New York, HarperCollins, 2000, p. 255.

Kacian, Jim. “An Overview of Haiku in English.” Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, edited by Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns, New York and London, W. W. Norton & Company, 2013, pp. 306, 322.

Loran, Erle. Cézanne’s Composition: Analysis of His Form with Diagrams and Photographs of His Motifs. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1963, pp. 14, 25, 29, 30, 64.

Portugés, Paul. “Allen Ginsberg’s Paul Cézanne and the Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus.” On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg, edited by Lewis Hyde, Anne Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1984, pp. 150, 153, 155.

Yasuda, Kenneth. The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English, with Selected Examples. Vermont and Tokyo, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1957, p. 7.

Connor McDonald

Connor McDonald writes from Salem, Oregon. He received a BA in Philosophy at Willamette University and is now pursuing a law degree as part of Willamette Law. His haiku have been published in Britain, Ireland, Canada, and America. His short form has been published in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.

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