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How The New American Poetry 1945-1960 Established the Canon of the Beat Movement

Series: Donald Allen and The New American Poetry 1945-1960, Part 5

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October 3, 2017

Early critical reviews and studies of literature of the Beat Movement defined Beat literature narrowly as referring almost exclusively to the works of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and the very early New York Beats. Later “New American Poetry” developed into a broader term including a much wider range of writers beyond the early Beats. Now, one of the appeals of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945-1960 anthology was that it reprinted Ginsberg’s Howl for the first time in an anthology. And Allen included Jack Kerouac’s poetry, not yet well-known (Choruses from Mexico City Blues).

But Allen’s anthology considered the Beats, the Black Mountain Poets, the New York School, and the San Francisco Renaissance as all being part of the same movement. Through the years and with the regular issuing of anthologies and critical studies combining all the elements of the innovative literary movement, as opposed to the established and accepted canon, and with the huge increase in studies in the literature of the Beat Movement since the 1980s, the poets of all these factions: San Francisco Renaissance, Black Mountain, New York School, City Lights poets have all been jumbled up in many minds anyway as part of the Beat Movement. Thus writers such as Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, or Frank O’Hara, all of whom at one point or another distanced themselves from the early Beats, nevertheless today can be considered part of the Beat Movement as much as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Eckbert Faas even attempts to place the establishment poet Robert Bly among the New American poets and, thus, the Beats.

The Beats were always included in that label, the New American Poets . Values of the 1950s New Critics such as self-containment, tension, irony, metaphor, or complexity of form are not values held by New American Poets. Their poetry is as free as the lifestyle it reflects.

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Paul Varner

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The Beginnings of New American Poetry

Series: Donald Allen and The New American Poetry 1945-1960, Part 3

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September 21, 2017

After the success of the original New American Poets 1945-1960 through the decade of the 1960s Donald Allen created a franchise of updated anthologies. By the way, the original edition is still in print and I always used it for a textbook for my course in literature of the Beat Movement. Beginning in 1973 Allen issued The Poetics of the New American Poetry, another anthology in which he collected every statement on the poetic craft and theory he could from 1950s-1960s avant-garde poets. The next series I will begin for The Scene will be these statements of poetics from the New American poets themselves.

Then in 1982 he updated his anthology altogether, making it more inclusive of women and poets of color, titled The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revisited. Also Ekbert Faas published in 1978 Towards a New American Poetics: Essays and Interviews, a widely quoted critical work that ultimately gave the term “New American Poetry” credence. Today, virtually any study of the poetry of such writers as Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Allen Ginsberg still refers to the idea of New American Poetry.

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Paul Varner

 

What Made The New American Poetry 1945-1960 So Exciting

Series: Donald Allen and The New American Poetry 1945-1960, Part 2

September 19, 2017

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It was the anthology of the San Francisco Renaissance, the poetry anthology of the Beat Movement. It included not only the certified rebels and outlaws of American literary society like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg but also intellectuals and academics such as Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Kenneth Koch. Donald Allen shifted the landscape of contemporary American literature. The major turning point of the Beat Movement toward postmodernism was not so much Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous novels such as Visions of Cody, Dr. Sax, or even Tristessa, as it was The New American Poets, 1945-1960, from Grove Press.

But perhaps what really made a difference among young radical poets of the 1950s and 1960s was that the poets in that red and white anthology were all new. I remember when I first picked up a copy in a library a few years after its publication. I was stationed just down the road from San Francisco in the U.S. Air Force. It gave me my lifelong passion for poetry and ultimately all of literature and so much more. I mean, these were not the poets anybody studied in school. And I was right. In fact, in 1960 the anthology that had solidified the canon of contemporary poetry and thus established which poets were worthy of serious attention by serious people, was that venerable textbook New Poets of England and America, edited by Donald Hall and Robert Pack. Not one poet The New American Poets was found in Donald Hall’s anthology, nor his poets in Donald Allen’s anthology. There was no overlapping whatever. Instead, New Poets of England and America includes such poets as Anthony Hecht, Robert Lowell, W. S. Merwin, May Swenson, and James Wright, obviously all of whom developed distinguished careers in later life and all received early academic recognition. The difference between the two anthologies was simply that: one anthology represented the academic poets favored by the New Critics; the other represented poets outside the academic mainstream.

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Paul Varner

 

William S. Burroughs Died on This Date in 1997

August 2, 2017

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In 1969, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg bought Patti Smith a cheese sandwich when she was short of money. While also treating her to coffee and chatting about Walt Whitman with Smith, Ginsberg realized she was a girl. He laughed, “I took you for a pretty boy!” Burroughs does not look amused.
August 2, 2017

On this day in 1997 William S. Burroughs died in Lawrence, Kansas. No doubt there will be numerous notices of this occasion today on Twitter and other social media. Here is a very early profile of Burroughs well before he became well-known to any but Beat insiders of the 1950s. From Seymour Krim’s anthology The Beats.

Burroughs is a beat legend, played guru, or teacher, to Kerouac and Ginsberg, has played with drugs, pistols, human life, human consciousness, a quicksilver daredevil with an extra-high IQ. Says of his work: ‘ ‘I write about what is in front of my senses at the moment of writing. I do not presume to impose ‘story’ or ‘plot’ or ‘continuity.’ ’ His underground novel [Naked Lunch], from which we show two sections is a quick-shifting pinwheel of the modern scene; has mad biting humor and sections of technological horror that out-Orwell Orwell. For all his exoticism Burroughs is realer than oldfashioned realism, although his disinterest in a sustained story makes for tonal repetition over the long run of his book. Best in short takes, he dazzles because of the unforced grotesqueness he shows in our hallucinatory, beyond-Mars, cozy little modern world.”

Krim printed several excerpts from The Naked Lunch in The Beats.

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Paul Varner

Gary Snyder Born on this Date

May 8, 2017

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Profiles of the Early Beats: Gary Snyder

On this date in in 1930 Gary Snyder was born in San Francisco. Snyder, today at age 87, keeps the Beat Movement alive while passing the flame on to successively younger generations. But let’s take a look at Snyder in the early days of the Beat Movement in this profile by Seymour Krim from his 1960 anthology The Beats. Easily forgotten about Snyder’s early career is that he was there at the famous Six Gallery reading in 1956 doing his own poetry the night Allen Ginsberg first read Howl and the night the Beat Movement became famous.

“Now making it in Japan-from which he wrote this charming letter [“Letter from Kyoto”]—Snyder is one of the important figures of the West Coast beat society, a poet, softly religious man, influence on Kerouac and others. Hostility syphned [sic.] out of him or transcended. His voice, like the very best of West Coast talent, is sweet without flaw or phoniness; not like the harsh New York hipsters. In a modest way Snyder is a credit to the human race, as sportswriter Jimmy Cannon once called Joe Louis. In addition to Snyder’s letter we are appending a very straight little number by him on beat religious attitudes; once again his writing gets to the bone with unsurgical, unhard naturalness. For a poet he writes first-rate prose.”

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Paul Varner

Profiles of the Early Beats: Phillip Lamantia

April 10, 2017

Profiles of the Early Beats: Phillip Lamantia

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Seymour Krim’s profile of Philip Lamantia in his 1960 anthology The Beats surely must be one of the most colorful description of the neo-surrealist poet. One thing about Philip Lamantia often forgotten is that he read his poetry that famous night at the Six Gallery when Allen Ginsberg first read Howl.

“Lamantia is a flamethrowing Roman catholic and can really light up the poetic pinball machine 1 out of every 4 shots. His whole bent is mystic, ecstatic, sensuous, dangerous. But when he hits, he hits for a high score. Sometimes the work gets vague and shrill; but the misses are what have to be suffered in order for him to get his rare, charging highs which sweep into the memory like an army of Christian neon lights. Hot stuff here, always a hair’s breadth away from over-statement. But the real spinal shudder when he makes it.”

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Paul Varner

Illuminating the Beats From Their Shadow: Re-Blog from NY Times

Books | American Beauties

MINOR CHARACTERS
By Joyce Johnson
265 pages, Penguin Books, $16.

Joyce Johnson was 21 and not long out of Barnard College when, in the winter of 1957, Allen Ginsberg set her up on a blind date with Jack Kerouac.

She took the subway downtown to meet him at a Howard Johnson’s on Eighth Street in Manhattan. “I push open the heavy glass door, and there is, sure enough, a black-haired man at the counter in a flannel lumberjack shirt slightly the worse for wear,” she writes.

“He looks up and stares at me hard with blue eyes, amazingly blue. And the skin on his face is so brown. He’s the only person in Howard Johnson’s in color. I feel a little scared as I walk up to him. ‘Jack?’ I say.”

Kerouac was older than Johnson, 34, and still largely unknown. The book that would make his reputation and upend American literature, “On the Road,” had yet to be published.

He was broke, hungry, distraught. She bought him a plate of frankfurters. He followed her back to her small apartment. A door had swung open in her life.

Thus began an off-and-on relationship that lasted nearly two years, years that witnessed the publication of “On the Road” and life-altering fame — not only Kerouac’s but also that of many of his closest friends, other Beat Generation writers.

Johnson captures this period with deep clarity and moving insight in her memoir “Minor Characters” (1983). It’s hardly an unknown book. It won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and it has remained in print since it was issued.

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Joyce Johnson in 2009. More than a memoir of her time with the Beats, “Minor Characters” is a riveting portrait of an era. Credit Schiffer-Fuchs/ullstein bild, via Getty Images

I’m including it in this series of columns about neglected American books because I so rarely hear it mentioned, and because I continue to think it is hideously undervalued and under-read. “Minor Characters” is, in its quiet but deliberate way, among the great American literary memoirs of the past century.

Johnson’s book takes its title from her realization that — as was so common in every sphere of cultural life in the 1950s and beyond — the Beats were a boy gang. She would always be, at best, on its periphery. Her memoir braids and unbraids, at length, the meanings of this fact.

She recalls how the women at the San Remo and other bars, hangouts for writers and artists, “are all beautiful and have such remarkable cool that they never, never say a word; they are presences merely.” Johnson and her friends wanted to be among the yakkers, the all-night arguers.

“Minor Characters” is not just about the Beats. It’s about many different subjects that bleed together. In part it’s a portrait of Johnson’s cloistered middle-class childhood on the Upper West Side. Her parents wanted her to be a composer.

She longed for escape and began sneaking down to Washington Square Park to be among the musicians and poets. She was round-faced, well-dressed, virginal. She’d never tasted coffee. It was “my curse,” she writes, that “my outside doesn’t reflect my inside, so no one knows who I really am.”

Her book is a riveting portrait of an era. It contains a description of a back-room abortion that’s as harrowing and strange as any I’ve read. Johnson had the abortion because she didn’t love the boy and wasn’t ready for a child.

“Sometimes you went to bed with people almost by mistake, at the end of late, shapeless nights when you’d stayed up so long it almost didn’t matter,” she writes. “The thing was, not to go home.”

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Alessandra Montalto gets credit for the image
actually published with this article./The New York Times

“Minor Characters” is a glowing introduction to the Beats. There are shrewd portraits of not just Kerouac and Ginsberg but people like Robert Frank and Hettie Jones.

Johnson has a knack for summing up a character in a blazing line or two. Here’s how she describes the Beat-era figure Lucien Carr, for example, at the moment he first met Kerouac: “This rich, dangerous St. Louis boy with the wicked mouth who’s already been kicked out of Bowdoin and the University of Chicago, who’s amassed a whole dissipated history by the age of 19.”

Best of all, perhaps, this book charts Johnson’s own career as a budding writer. She worked in publishing when she was young; she was secretary to John Farrar of Farrar, Straus and Cudahy (later Farrar, Straus & Giroux). He wanted to promote her; she left instead to visit Kerouac in Mexico and write. She published her first novel, “Come and Join the Dance,” when she was 26.

By then, she and Kerouac had separated for good. There was a final scene on a sidewalk. “You’re nothing but a big bag of wind!” she shouted at him. Kerouac, constitutionally unable to remain with one woman, shouted back, “Unrequited love’s a bore!”

Johnson looks back on the young woman she was, while with Kerouac, and realizes she was “not in mourning for her life. How could she have been, with her seat at the table in the exact center of the universe, that midnight place where so much is converging, the only place in America that’s alive?”

I remember tracking down a first edition of “Minor Characters” — this was harder in the late 1980s than it is today — to give to my college girlfriend as a graduation present. She looked at its title, wrinkled her brow and asked, “Why this book?” Why a book, in other words, about women who are minor characters?

I fumbled my answer. I knew only that I loved the book and wanted to share it. What I wish I had said is this: “Minor Characters” is better than all but a handful of books the boy-Beats themselves wrote. It’s a book about a so-called minor character who, in the process of writing her life, became a major one.

Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner

American Beauties is a column by Dwight Garner, appearing every other week, about undersung American books of the past 75 years.

A version of this review appears in print on April 7, 2017, on Page C21 of the New York edition with the headline: Illuminating the Beats From Their Shadow. Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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Paul Varner