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COLUMN FORTY-FIVE, MAY 1, 1999
(Copyright 1999 Al Aronowitz)

 

BOOK REVIEWS

I WILL NOT BOW DOWN, SELECTED POEMS 1990-1995, by Ron Whitehead (Hozomeen Press, Box 174 Mystic, Conn. 06355, 65 pages, $12.00 paper.)

ANGELS, ANARCHISTS & GODS, by Christopher Felver; Foreword by Robert Creeley; Introduction by Douglas Brinkley; ISBN 0-8071-2085-5 (Louisiana State University Press, October, 1996, $45.00)

Reviewed by John Tytell

In 1970, I was laughed at when I predicted that the Beat Generation would receive more attention from culture critics and a larger public than the Lost Generation.

Howl and A Coney Island Of The Mind have been the most widely read poems of our time, but the accuracy of the prediction is, perhaps, best verified by recent events: the huge Whitney Museum Beat Retrospective now traveling across America: Robert Frank's 1994 Moving Out show at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.; Viking's publication of the first volume of Kerouac's letters in 1995 and Ann Charters' Portable Kerouac; the conferences at places like N.Y.U. in 1994 and 1995, the INSOMNIACATHON that just transpired at the University of New Orleans, and the more than twenty universities that now feature Beat courses as standard offerings; the thirty Beat-connected films shown at the 1996 Venice Film Festival.

Kenneth Rexroth, in one of his less prescient moments, denied that there was any such phenomenon as the Beat Generation, and William Burroughs, when I interviewed him in the Bunker in 1971, perversely told me that he did not consider himself a part of it. Burroughs also informed me then that the primary importance of the Beats was cultural rather than literary, an opinion I contested with Naked Angels.

Literature is news that stays news, Ezra Pound remarked and the point is that the Beats have had a profound impact on BOTH our culture and our literature. Maybe Burroughs has always been more of a cult figure (witness the 1984 Nova Convention on the Lower East Side or his hosting of Saturday Night Live) while Kerouac is our generational spokesman, but one salient clue to the continuing vitality of the Beats has been the presence of their literary descendants. Burroughs' own son wrote what I consider to be the best book ever written about amphetamine culture, and Kerouac's daughter published two novels before she died last summer. Lucien Carr, one of the Beat code figures, has a son Caleb who wrote The Alienist, a title with a certain Beat resonance and a best-seller last year. Julian Beck and Judith Malina whose Living Theatre had an enormous impact on international theatre also had a son named Garrick who started the Rainbow Family which isn't quite a book but which has presented a vital alternative to Just Say No for American youth.

The influence is pervasive, not merely geneological. I think of Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper, for example, as descendants of Burroughs' just as the musical reverberations can be heard in Steely Dan, Nirvana, Patti Smith or Lou Reed. With Kerouac, the influence on fiction and film is so great I couldn't begin to chart it here, but suffice it to mention that I have a discography of over fifty rock songs about him. Second generation Beat poets like Anne Waldman, Ed Sanders, Aram Saroyan, Antler, or Andy Clausen have reinvigorated the poetic of Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg.

Which brings me to Ron Whitehead who represents a third generation. I'd like to quote his mysterious, enigmatically haunting Bone Man because it is so brief:

                                                                              The bone man dances circles
                                                                         round the subterranean gloom,
                                                               paints pink and blue and purple
                                                                               until he fills the room
                                                                           with the smell of roses
                                                                    and a pandemonium moon.

The ringing phrase "pandemonium moon" has a certain surrealist extravagance that reminds me of Corso. For Whitehead, poems are sacred elixers, highly charged alchemical sacraments reaching back to ancient mythic circumstance. I detect the flavor of an early Yeats in the Celtic twilight, before Pound toughened him up.

The strongest influence here, however, is Ferlinghetti who acknowledges it in French in a back cover blurb. The opening poem in the collection, San Francisco, May 1993 is a pilgrimage to North Beach, using Ferlinghetti's short line whose rhythmic impact---as in the now famous I Am Waiting---depends on the accumulation of detail and incident.

Another sign of Ferlinghetti's voice is in the title poem I Will Not Bow Down or in Whitehead's Alchemical Rant with its tributes as well to Baraka, Di Prima, and Ginsberg, and its unqualified scorn for the Academia in whose "hermetic corridors...the Dead/somberly splash in their shallow sewers/devouring and regurgitating themselves." This kind of poem is written as spontaneous transcription emerging in a tumultuous rush---the kind of thing Ginsberg did in The Fall Of America. It is infused with Whitehead's belief in the magical transformations implicit in poetry with the music of the poem serving as chant, incantation, ultimately pagan prayer. The same can be said for the poetry rants---the poets' equivalents of musicians' raves---Whitehead has been organizing around the country, non-stop marathon readings like the 48-hour one at the 1993 Kerouac Festival in Lowell, Mass, or the 1994 one at the N.Y.U. Beat Celebration.

Whitehead is the latest benefactor of the Beat tradition whose breadth and scope is greater than that of the Lost Generation. This brings me to Chris Felver's collection of 202 black-and-white portraits, beginning with a surprised and screaming Abbie Hoffman and ending with a poised and almost meditative David Byrne. Felver pushes the Beat envelpe---indeed as encompassing as the circle around Emerson 150 years ago---a bit further than I would, even including a wistful Jimmy Carter, and another shot of John Kenneth Galbraith. But he captures an essential Beat spiritual quality in his work, a heart opening which is missing from a lot of contemporary photography with its Faustian fascination with technology for its own sake. As Robert Creeley, the most mindful of American poets advises, Felver's portraits have a casual, affectionate intimacy that is also characteristically Beat; he is less the voyeur and more the trusted pal.

Felver began this collection over two decades ago by reading Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island Of The Mind, and then hanging out in Alice's Restaurant in Stockbridge, Mass. during the crucible of Vietnam. He landed in North Beach in 1978, completed a film called West Coast Beat and Beyond and has been photographing the avant-garde with his libertarian optimism ever since. He has filmed John Cage and most recently Ferlinghetti and his photographs were exhibited at the Pompideau in 1994.

Among my own favorite photographs here are the one of Hubert Selby whose waif like appearance belies the ferocity of his writing, of John Wieners outside the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, of James Schuyler in the organized litter of his Chelsea Hotel room in 1985, of Miguel Algarin beaming outside the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, of a dapper Ted Joans in a N.Y.C. bus holding a placard written in French urging us to "make love in the metro," of Charles Henri Ford in his apartment in the Dakota with a magnified left eye, of Jack Micheline hugging a friend with his paintings in the background, of Ira Cohen resembling the Wandering Jew. There's lots of genuine feeling in these pictures, enough to make you weep with joy and gratitude.

[Contributors note: John Tytell spoke on the cultural legacy of the Beats at the 1996 Venice Film Festival. A new translation of his Naked Angels has just been published by Votobia in the Czech Republic. He is also the author of The Living Theatre, Ezra Pound, and Passionate Lives. The executive editor of American Book Review, John Tytell is also professor of English at NYC's Queens College. ##

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