Not All That Beat Either

Follows an autobiographical fragment. To be sure, almost everything in my blog is autobiographical in one sense another. Yet as time goes on I find myself less and less inclined or maybe even able to read narratives of any length. Only seems fair not to impose one of mine on others. Fragments will do just fine.

A few weeks ago I bought tickets to a contemporary oratorio, Philip Glass’s Hydrogen Jukebox, a setting of Allan Ginsberg’s sequence of poems Howl. I had missed the 2010 documentary about the poet, whose book had raised a ruckus when published in 1956, on another planet. I had wanted to see the film for much of the same reason I broke down and booked a seat at the Long Beach Opera: understanding better who I was in those years, more beat than hippie, though not all that beat either.

The Ginsberg estate had enlisted the film-makers to take on the film project, judging, on the basis of their previous films (The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, among them), that “the pair could deliver an in-depth documentary on time and on budget; plus, they were queer enough to understand the social pressures that formed the poet”.

Frankly, I am not sure if one has to be queer in order to understand those social pressures, which were rampant and pervasively vicious on all sides and for all participants when I crossed from mid- into late-adolescence in the city Ginsberg evoked in his litany, referring to “hysterical hipsters who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup”. That was the first reference to my native city I had ever seen in literature. I found compelling the idea that jazz and sex had a literary home in Houston and that other people, hipsters even, were seeking them out. I wasn’t sure what jazz was, nor actual sex for that matter. But I wanted all of it.

I am still trying to sleuth down the early Ginsberg poem I had stumbled across in an anthology in late 1959. Something about a cracked mirror. I suspect it was one distant source for the expressionist haiku I jotted into a notebook a quarter of a century later in a bar in Mexico City. That is how poetry works in general. As for haiku in particular, it turns out that this haiku is about haiku themselves. 

In the cracked mirror
five faces, seven bottles
in the cracked mirror.

Shortly after I read Ginsberg’s own cracked mirror poem, I was introduced to Howl by Neal Parker, the debate teacher during my sophomore high school  year. A Kennedy Democrat, Neal was a communist in the eyes of the local cell of the John Birch Society, a subversive crypto-fascist network of paranoid right wingers. Driven out of the Houston Public School system, he took one of our high school teams to compete successfully in the National Forensic Championship Finals at the end of that same year. His lessons about how to argue and how to speak in public set the parameters for much of my subsequent intellectual life and career. He was the most generous and sincerely giving pedagogue I ever met.

I was less taken by Howl than by the other book Neal pressed upon me during the summer of 1961, after he had been dismissed by the School Board: James Ramsey Ullman’s The Day on Fire, a fictional life of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. It might sound incongruous to mention that potboiler in the same breath as Howl, but it exerted enormous influence on me. Neal explicitly hoped that I would find my way to emulating Rimbaud not in his precocious poetic achievement, a rather implausible prospect, but in his scandalous relationship with the poet Paul Verlaine.

I realize that I am taking readers who have not spent a lifetime with French literature off on a side-track, and probably also diverting others who might, after the teasing feint just above, expect a thorough-going exploration of my queer temptations, into which I shall not delve here. What follows instead is an account of my first steps on the literary path I am still fumbling along.

Tediously I began parsing out the en regard translation in the New Directions edition of Rimaud’s A Season in Hell. French took. It became the vehicle of my escape from Texas and shaped much of my subsequent life, in France, later and repeatedly in Canada, and then in France again and in Francophone Africa and the Caribbean.  I can now see that the language of Molière was only a detour for me. This reminiscence is, after all, in English. But languages are like deep ocean currents. They carry you far from where you set out to go. Then sometimes they just let you drop. 

There is a memorable passage in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, in which Ken Kesey, under the influence of LSD and enraptured by the Lucretian free-fall of an acorn a squirrel dislodged outside his window, is depicted as comprehending in a flash that the Old World, in particular France, was henceforth ancient history. The new grail of spiritual quest was instead to be sought in India. For me there was an earlier parting of the ways, one which bounded off in the opposite direction, though I did, under the daunting, beneficent influence of lysergic acid diethylamide, come to appreciate some fine points of Indian thought, of Buddhism and Zen and the panoply of related esoteric belief systems which proliferated in the late sixties. I even earned a black-belt in aikido, which is the closest I have come to professing and practicing a religion.

Yet the fork in my road, posed instead in literary terms, was the choice between Howl and A Season in Hell. I was aware that Rimbaud was one of Ginsberg’s heros but there was something I found lacking in the Beats. They were so resolutely American, Whitmanesque to the core and, despite all their frantic trips to exotic sites, stuck in a monolingual rut. I had only a mild case of what has been called the Wolfson Syndrome, but there were indeed moments I felt trapped in English like a transgender person assigned the wrong sex at birth.

Demography puts me just on the far side of the boomer generation, not even on the cusp, since I was born before WWII was formally over, and had been therefore consummated either by coital accident, which I doubt, or by a spurt of prescient optimism about how the war would turn out. So it was indeed the Beats, if only their dying embers, to which I initially turned as a rebellious 16-year old. Hippies didn’t exist.

My beard took several more years to fill out. In the meantime, I began to dress in black and acquired my first turtle-necks. Tobacco, dark coffee, empty wicker baskets of Chianti with candles stuffed in their necks were necessary accoutrements. There were even neighborhoods in Houston, among them Westheimer on the near west side, where we teenagers could gather to partake of these  sophisticated tastes.

I had read Allen Churchill’s Improper Bohemians: Greenwich Village in its Heyday, so had some idea what Bohemia was or had been, though as a child of the Deep South I still atavistically disdained East Coast Yankee culture, from which I have always felt excluded, even when inside it. I had also devoured Lawrence Lipton’s The Holy Barbarians, an account of Beat culture, one homeland of which was San Francisco. But thanks to Rimbaud my own mental compass was set toward the transatlantic East, toward Europe. In a spasm of adolescent gumption, I broke abruptly from US Beat ideals and set my sights on France, where I imagined true Bohemia lay.

Not once did I glance in the direction of California, where, if lucky, I shall now spend the remainder of my days, watching flocks of little brown birds shred the leaves of my sunflowers.