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The New American Poetry: A Proposal for New Terminology

Series: Donald Allen and The New American Poetry 1945-1960, Part 7 (Conclusion)

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October 5, 2017

Probably the better label today by which to refer to all of this poetry called the New American Poetry is simply to include it into what has over the last few decades become a much bigger category—the Beat Movement itself. The reason many poets who later became part of the establishment poetry scene—like Levertov and Duncan—was because of the negative connotations of Beatnik poetry and Beatniks so mischaracterized by popular media. Those connotations no longer have much weight. Most of us look back on all the New American poets, the City Lights Pocket Poets, and so forth as part of the Beat Movement. Perhaps it’s time to discard the term “New American” poets and just refer to poets of the Beat Movement. Or perhaps it’s time to bring up the idea of postmodern. Allen and George F. Butterick in The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revisited attempted to make the transition of the term New American to the term Postmodern. Others have not extended the term quite that far.

In my book, Historical Dictionary of the Beat Movement for Rowman and Littlefield Press, I attempt to move the Beats from simply a Beat Generation, that is the generation of the 1950s—Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Olson, Duncan, Snyder, Creeley,–the gang—to the much longer lasting Beat Movement—a broader picture of Beat literature. The original Beats worked hard to define Beatness—Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes most famously. But the Movement extended far beyond anything defined around being beaten down or searching for a state of beatitude. The movement extended outward to others beyond the early New York and San Francisco origins to arguably what became the dominant avant-garde movement of the 20th century and into our own time as well. Perhaps it’s time we dropped labels that keep the poetry of the Beat Movement stuck in the 1950s and 1960s. What do you think?

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Paul Varner

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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