Coney Island of the Mind: 50th Anniversary Edition by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
(New Directions Publishing, 1958/2008)
About Now: Collected Poems of Joanne Kyger by Joanne Kyger
(National Poetry Foundation, 2007)
The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen by Philip Whalen, Edited by Michael Rothenberg
(Wesleyan University Press, 2007)
In 1948, Jack Kerouac said “Ah, this is nothing but a beat generation.” And so it became but Capitalized.
The 1960s were a time of profound change: and this was reflected in the number of poetic movements taking place. On the East Coast, more specifically New York City, were the New York School of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara and the Deep Image School of Jerome Rothenberg later taken over by Robert Bly. On the West Coast, specifically centred in San Francisco, were the San Francisco Renaissance under the tutelage of Jack Spicer, and the North Beach Beats centred around the City Lights Book Store owned and operated by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Reviewed here are three prominent practitioners of that initially San Francisco later world poetry movement -- The Beats.
While the street usage of the term implied being broke, destitute, exhausted, etc., “Kerouac (in various interviews and lectures) was trying to indicate the correct sense of the word by pointing out its connection to words like ‘beatitude’ and ‘beatific’ -- the necessary beatness or darkness that precedes opening up to light, egolessness, giving room for religious illumination.”(Alan Ginsberg, foreword to The Beat Book, xiv) He goes on, at p. xv, to list “a number of consistent themes which might be summarized as follows: An intuitiveness into the nature of consciousness, leading to acquaintance with Eastern thought, meditative practice, art as extension or manifestation of exploration of the texture of consciousness, spiritual liberation as a result. This led toward sexual liberation, particularly gay liberation, which historically had a part in catalyzing women’s lib and black lib. A tolerant nontheistic view developed out of exploring the texture of consciousness, thus cosmic anti-fascism, a peaceable nonviolent approach to politics, multiculturalism, the absorption of black culture into mainstream literature and music,...So art’s viewed as sacred practice, with sacramental approach to each other as characters.”
Anne Waldman, in her Editor’s introduction to The Beat Book, asks “What makes the legacy of the Beat writers so fiercely durable, their image tenacious and provocative? What is the wisdom that this controversial literary generation imparts through its writings?” and answers “I think the nominal ‘Beat literature canon’ endures and has such force because it holds together, through communality, a discourse that manifests a visceral relationship to language...This impulse to write is gathered and centered in magnanimity through language. Candid American speech rhythms, jazz rhythms, boxcar rhythms, industrial rhythms, rhapsody, skilful cut-up juxtapositions, and expansiveness that mirrors the primordial chaos come into play constantly. This is writing that thumbs its nose at self-serving complacency.”(xix-xx)
One of the most important practitioners of Beat poetry was Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He “was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1919. After spending his early childhood in France, he received his B.A. from the University of North Carolina, an M.A. from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne. In 1953, Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin began to publish City Lights magazine. They also opened the City Lights Books Shop in San Francisco to help support the magazine. In 1955, they launched City Light Publishing, a book-publishing venture. City Lights became known as the heart of the "Beat" movement. Ferlinghetti is the author of more than thirty books of poetry, including A Coney Island of the Mind (1958). In 1994, San Francisco renamed a street in his honor. He was also named the first Poet Laureate of San Francisco in 1998. In 2000, he received the lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle.” (www.poets.org)
The reader is immediately drawn into A Coney Island of the Mind through strong alliteration, rhyme and rhythm set in lines that sculpt the page:
In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see
the people of the world
exactly at the moment when 1
they first attained the title of
They writhe upon the page
in a veritable rage
He then proceeds to take this description and blast it upon today:
We are the same people
only further from home
on freeways fifty lanes wide
on a concrete continent
spaced with bland billboards
illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness
The scene shows fewer tumbrils
but more strung-out citizens
in painted cars
and they have strange license plates
that devour America”(9-10)
We discover here another identifier of Beat poetry: the way that the language of the street (‘strung-out’) runs alongside more exalted poetic language without blushing or having an inferiority crisis.
Whitman had a profound influence on the Beats -- not just in Ginsberg’s Howl. We can see that in Ferlinghetti:
and its America
with its ghost towns and empty Ellis Islands
and its surrealist landscape of
cinerama holy days
and protesting cathedrals(13)
Ferlinghetti, like all poets before or since, has moments where his sensibility escapes him and he passes off crap like poem 28 as poetry:
Dove sta amore
Where lies love
Dove sta amore
Here lies love
The ring dove love
In lyrical delight(43)
This has completely nothing to do with the poetry that came before or the poetry that will come later to complete Coney Island. It just appears in some cutesy page of its own where even the structure indicates that it just doesn’t belong.
The essence of Beat poetry is captured in the seven poems beginning on p. 49 which, as the previous page informs us, are intended for jazz accompaniment. The issue is one of orality rendering these poems in a continuous state of flux. We can sense this in “Junkman’s Obbligato” where, on p. 56-7, we read:
I wish to descend in society.
I wish to make like free.
Swing low sweet chariot.
Let us not wait for the cadillacs
to carry us triumphal
into the interior
waving at the natives
like roman senators in the provinces
wearing poet’s laurels
on lighted brows.
We can hear the hard bop in the background, the wailing of the saxophone, the thumping of the bass as the rhythm of the words carries us inexorably onwards, all in a spontaneous improvisation, an eruption of words and music filling the emptiness of some smoke-filled club, the blue haze of cigarettes and other things, where junkies shoot up in back rooms, all punctuated by the sound of the cash register. The impetus behind this poem is Eliot’s Prufrock as is made clear from the one on p. 57: “Let us go then you and I / leaving our neckties behind us on lampposts”.
We turn now to one of the female Beats, Joanne Kyger who, as Linda Russo writes at p. 25, in a short but potent introduction to About Now, was “born in Vallejo, California, in 1934, Kyger attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, studying with Hugh Kenner, among others. She arrived in San Francisco in 1957 during the Howl censorship trial.” Describing her poetics, Russo says “Bringing Eastern and Western influences together, Kyger, like many of her generation, was a transpacific Walt Whitman. And she incorporated the lessons of Charles Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’ to articulate mind, breath and line in a manner distinct from Ginsberg’s improvisational ‘first thought best thought’ or Whalen’s inward ‘graph of a mind moving.’ Her vivid and carefully crafted poems posit connections between self and world...For Kyger, this ‘everything’ includes not only her immediate environment, but also a substratum of history, memory, and myth, a familiar ‘underworld...furnished with raw understanding.’”(26) Kyger’s writing can be divided into two, perhaps three, phases. Of the first, Kyger charts outward journeys and inward turns of mind.”(27) Of the second, “This narrative inclusiveness held sway in her poems through the early 1970s..., but Kyger’s later work trims the exposition, is the writing of a poet who ‘loves to fuss / and prune with the mythology / of under and...over tones.”(27) And finally “Kyger’s more recent poems place her among our most diligent of ecological poets.”(28)
Anne Waldman, in The Beat Book, adds that “She moved to San Francisco’s North Beach in 1957, where she was actively involved with Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and other writers of the San Francisco Renaissance...In 1960 she traveled to Japan where she married Gary Snyder. She belonged to the American expatriate scene in Kyoto...Kyger traveled to India with Snyder, Ginsberg, and Orlovsky. She returned to San Francisco in 1964...A long-time student of Buddhism, Kyger developed a dry, witty, incisive form of poetry, drawn from daily journal writing practices, among other sources.”(238)
Kyger’s first book, The Tapestry and the Web, was published in 1965. The first poem, untitled but indicated in the Table of Contents by its first line “My Mother”, is juvenilia which is readily seen in its first stanza:
Picked me from a Siennese fresco
I was riding a white horse
and wearing a red-scarlet gown
Placed on my head was a small black crown
and my yellow hair was falling down(33)
The rhyming triplet that comes out of nowhere and goes the same direction is clearly immature. Thankfully, it predated the poems in The Tapestry. The difference between this and the first poem in The Tapestry, “The Maze”, is amazing. Examining the first two stanzas:
I saw the
dead bird on the sidewalk
his neck uncovered
At seven in the morning
my hair was bound
against the fish in the air
who begged for the ocean
I longed for their place(42)
we see that the writing is more assured, more lyrical, the imagery more controlled and influenced by surrealism. It’s not that she has abandoned rhyme; it’s just that she has learned to use it sparingly, much more effectively. In the “Tapestry” found at p.77 (there are several poems with that title), the use of a single rhyme in the poem makes that poem what it is: “coquettish towards / the sound of the / huntsman’s horn the / capture / then of the / unicorn.” In this first book, Kyger has not yet adopted Beat poetics and is still under the influence of Jack Spicer. This can be seen in the final series of poems titled “The Odyssey Poems”, influenced by Spicer’s serial poetry concept, which explores Homer’s The Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope.
In 1970, Kyger released Places to Go which, while retaining the classical references to Odysseus and the Greek gods such as Hermes, shows dramatic development, the influence of the Beats clearly showing through this classicist veneer and mixing with Spicer. The opening poem, “The Pigs for Circe in May” is an excellent example:
I almost ruined the stew and Where
is my peanut butter sandwich I tore through the back of the car
I could not believe
there was One slice of my favourite brown bread and my stomach and
I jammed the tin foil and bread wrappers into the stew
and no cheese and I simply could not believe
and you Never
TALK when my friends are over
This is known as camping in Yosemite.(104)
By the time of “Meandering”, Beat poetics has supplanted Spicer almost completely and the classical references have been abandoned:
This isn’t what I wanted to say, I didn’t want
to say anything, derived from 1
Reason, Glory, and Splendor
I was thinking of shrimp over noodles
I wish to allow great unimpeded
Grandeur like a rising storm
to take over
and do the dishwashing.(165)
In their capitalized form, have reason, glory, and splendor become the gods of the American dream?
The division 1968-1974 opens with the poem “Lord Ganesha”. Although her trip to India took place several years previous, it is only now that she begins to open to the experience. We read: “The Syllable GA represents mind and speech / What is beyond is the syllable NA and by / adoring him in the combination GANA you become / Brahman. The teaching is known as the secret / of VEDANTA.”(176) Several poems in this section reflect Kyger’s journal approach to poetry which continues into the next section, 1974-1978. Beginning with the book The Wonderful Focus of You (1980), the poem “(Out the Window)” begins “April 4, 1975. Time of wonder / on how it goes together. And pausing to see / The same landscape only changed / by progression of time.”(325) Exhibited here, as elsewhere, is her humor as she opens up the quotidian to new experiences. In “Saturday Full Moon September”, which adheres to the journal approach to poetry but not as blatant, Kyger ponders her purchase of marijuana: “I seem to have paid $40 for half a lid of grass, / maybe Columbian, full of seeds / which I must plant in order to make any even claim / to responsible finances.”(331)
Just Space (1990) opens the section 1979-1989. This highlights the confused organization of this book. The full title of Just Space is Just Space: 1979-1989. But what about the poems in Man/Woman: Two Poems (1980) or Phenomenological (1989)? Are these included in Just Space or are they separate? There is just not enough information provided to justify the division by period. Do the poems in Places to Go span the first two divisions as seems to be the case? If so, then why are the poems in Joanne (1970) contained entirely within the second division -- even though the ‘Books by Joanne Kyger’ at the start of this collection lists the publication of Joanne preceding the publication of Places to Go? This arrangement defies logic and leaves the reader adrift, lost at sea. Fortunately, this strange arrangement does not affect the poetry which we can still sit down in our easy chair and enjoy
As the 80s moved into the 90s, Kyger became more and more involved in Buddhism. In fact, according to her poem “On Moving to the Naropa Campus Fall 1991”, she immersed herself in it:
Many many a thousand
hands in positions
and “Dharma: the suitcase of many meanings”, possibly one of her most beautiful poems:
And it is a beauteous evening, calm and fair with broad sun
sinking behind the front range
and the derangement of attire
is reaping frustration for the pure soul
whose heart is acceptable for naught
But cuts across the reflex of a star(553)
It is this awakening to Buddhism that probably led to her awakening to ecology. In the poem “First Nation”, we read:
Back in First Nation time, morning of the world time
the sun has yet to arrive, keeping all in a silver keening.
Attack a chore and stay there
Imports are tossed
on the compost This
is about weeding the unwanted
plant life out of the ground
A very short stop for roots to stay(639)
No one took Buddhism further than Philip Whalen. The Beat Book provides, on p. 284-5, an excellent bio:
Philip Whalen was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1923...From 1946 to 1951, Whalen studied at Reed College on the G.I. bill, rooming in a house with Gary Snyder and Lew Welch. While at Reed, he discovered the writings of D.T. Suzuki and developed a lifetime interest in Asian religion, particularly Zen Buddhism. After receiving a B.A. in literature and languages in 1951, Whalen took up residence in San Francisco, where he joined Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, and others for the famous Six Gallery reading on October 6, 1955. [This from Wikipedia: “The Six Gallery reading (also known as the Gallery Six reading or Six Angels in the Same Performance) was a poetry-reading ( or "-jamming"), which occurred at the Six Gallery on Friday, October 7, 1955 at 3119 Fillmore Street in San Francisco. Conceived by Wally Hedrick, this event was the first important public manifestation of the Beat Generation and helped to herald the West Coast literary revolution that became known as the San Francisco Renaissance.] In1967and again from 1969 to 1971, he lived in Kyoto, where he wrote Scenes of Life at the Capital. Back in the United States, Whalen moved into the San Francisco Zen Center in 1972, and on February 3, 1973, was ordained Unsui, Zen Buddhist monk, with the Dharma name Zenshin Ryufu. In 1975, he served as head monk at the Tassajara retreat center. He was a regular visiting faculty member at the Naropa Institute during the seventies and eighties...On September 14, 1991, Philip Whalen was installed as abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center, San Francisco.
As to his poetics, Paul Hoover, in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, states, at p. 80:
Whalen’s poetry embraces the world with a Whitmanesque openness and gentleness. Yet the wit of Whalen’s writing reminds critic and poet Michael Davidson of the eighteenth-century satirists Alexander Pope and John Dryden. Davidson further observes that Whalen’s ‘emphasis on the situational frame resembles the ‘personism’ of New York poets like Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan, whose poetry insists on the temporary and contingent in art. ‘Poetry’, Whalen has said, ‘is the graph of the mind’s movement.’
This is added to by Leslie Scalapino in her introduction to The Collected Poems titled “Language as Transient Act, The Poetry of Philip Whalen” where, at p. xxxii, she states:
Whalen described (to me in conversation) his discovery of Williams’ poetry: It opened for him the possibility of freedom from an ‘academy’ notion of a poem, which he viewed as being narration of subject matter in a preconceived ordering bound up. Rather, he realized that a reordering of every level can take place in the line and in the sound structure of the language itself. Whalen was also influenced by Stein and Pound. He made the distinction to me that his direction was more the phenomenological undertaking of Stein then the visionary direction suggested by Blake that was taken up by Ginsberg.
Whalen expanded on the idea of poetry as ‘the graph of the mind’s movement’. As quoted by Scalapino, at p. xxxvi, he described it as “A continuous fabric (nerve movie?) exactly as wide as these lines -- ‘continuous’ within a certain time limit, say a few hours of total attention and pleasure: to move smoothly past the reader’s eyes, across his brain: the moving sheet has shaped holes in it.”
This is the way to honor a poet. Do not just put out a collected or a selected without fanfare. Give a proper introduction, a good initial analysis. You’re issuing a collected or a selected because this poet has paid her/his dues and has earned respect. Do not just throw it out there as if it were a fish left to flounder on the shore.
The one improvement that could have been made is in the organization of the poems. The editor, Michael Rothenberg, included an Appendix A which lists Whalen’s various books and the order of the poems included in each -- a very valuable addition. The poems that a poet has selected for publication in a book and the sequence in which those poems have been presented is important (even if the book’s editor may have had more or less influence on those decisions). Why not put that up front in the table of contents where the reader can immediately see it? Why not reinforce that by including throughout the book indications of where one book ends and the next begins? But enough of that. Let’s look at the actual poems.
Even Whalen’s early poetry showed significant promise. Take “The Sealion”(18-19) from 1950. The first stanza introduces us to this regal beast, its slow progress against the waves. In the second, a note of discord is introduced: “Two with rifles / Wheezed up to the cliff edge: / ‘kill it for the bounty.’” The fourth and final stanza adds a note of irony: “Their boot prints marred the beach / for six hours.”
“Sourdough Mountain Lookout” is one of Whalen’s early masterpieces. A pastiche more than a collage, he introduces quotes from Heraclitus, Empedocles, and The Buddha demonstrating the perambulations of mind as he wanders through this landscape he created beginning with a quote from Tsung Ping (375-443). During the course of this wandering, he provides a description “Morning fog in the southern gorge / Gleaming foam restoring the old sea-level / The lakes in two lights green soap and indigo / The high cirque-lake black half-open eye”(40) which opens before us an ancient, meditative Japanese print.
“A Dim View of Berkeley in the Spring” is the quintessential Beat poem. Capturing the angst of the era, it elevated the quotidian into poetry:
Leap, shout, a pattern of release that actually comes
Much later in some parked car
Trying to make out with some chick who
WON’T, she wants a home of her own to do it in
(Who can blame her?)
Then going back to the house with a stone-ache
Or gooey underwear, the tension
Relieved so they can sleep or built high enough
To be dreamed off or jacked away in the shower at 3 a.m.
Where’s the action? What’s going on?(78)
In 1959, Whalen wrote “Address to the Boobus” in which he began to explore a kinetic collational style of poetry:
with her Hieratic Formulas in reply
O Great Princess
Keeper of the Mystic Shrine
O Holy & Thrice More Holy
Prussian Blue Dark Blue Light Blue French Blue
Blyni & Pyrozhki Sapphire Aquamarine
To Take Out Turquoise Zircon
Malachite, a sea-color stone
(vested maenad baccante)
among the leaves bright & dark(143-4)
Words resonate with hidden power returning us to their mystic origins, the place where merely their sound was sufficient to invoke the gods. This is a style he would explore throughout his career. Take the 1961 “One of My Favorite Songs Is Stormy Weather”, for example:
paper As I walked further I grew happier
syrup and less nervous, although I am an
rubber atheist I pray all the time
frankincense Acorn Allspice lime-flower tea
myrrh Almond clove jasmine
fruit Avocado nutmeg gum Arabic
It is the visual that captures -- a new dimension of concrete poetry.
This concept of the power of the individual word, the idea of the sacred contained within the secular, almost a pagan offering, went so far as to inform Whalen’s more ‘lyrical’ offerings. In 1963, he wrote “Spring Poem to the Memory of Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928)”:
Old woman, here in the dark of the moon
Honey milk seed falls at your feet
When will she go up the sky again?
Spirit of milk follow her and swell her body
bring star showers(282)
The spirituality of nature provided inspiration to Whalen. In “Night and Morning Michaelangelo”, which recalls Pound’s “In The Metro”, that emotion is beautifully captured:
Black thick dewy leaves, inchoate and opaque
Sun crystallizes them, an apparition of Green Jade
varying transparency, all
Shortly before this, Whalen had begun to experiment with ‘picture poems’ -- probably influenced in this regard by Kenneth Patchen. This led to Whalen introducing concrete poem ideas and Cubism into his regular poetry leading to the creation of “Life and Death and a Letter to my Mother Beyond Them Both”(297). This is one of the most amazing poems the reader will ever read -- but is impossible to quote from. It can only be experienced in its entirety.
By 1964, Whalen had perfected his pastiche technique resulting in huge landscapes of poetry. In “The Best of It”:
I wrote ‘46’ a few days ago
GOLD IT SHINES
WELLS FARGO BANK
& UNION TRUST COMPANY
California Belt Line Railroad crash hump freightcars
midnight road and cool
What other word can I comb out of my moustache?(390)
Written in Kyoto in 1966, “Ten Titanic Etudes” provides an interesting window into Whalen’s development. These ten sections owe their inspiration to Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. Whalen creates this cubist perspective while infusing his poetry with Zen. Part IV, in which he captures the essence of Buddhism – impermanence, the idea that everything is ever changing - provides the best insight:
NOW the light is all different, the air
Moving, no longer in the way
SEE THE CHANGING(511)
Shortly after this point, Whalen became less prolific. Initially, he saturated himself in writings influenced by Eastern philosophy. But, once he gained comfort in the knowledge he sought, he returned to an exploration of a wide range of subjects reflective of his earlier career. Not that he ever left the east, he just felt comfortable being able to expand this vision.
We have explored the writings of three poets who were considered part of the Beat movement that exploded onto the scene from a small art gallery, the ‘6’, in 1955 to become one of the most influential poetic movements of the 60’s. It vied for influence with a number of other movements that arose during the 50’s and 60’s. Near home, in North Beach, San Francisco, was the San Francisco Renaissance spearheaded by Jack Spicer, Robin Blazer and, a refugee from Black Mountain, Robert Duncan. On the east coast and, more specifically, New York City, was the New York School of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, et al and the Deep Image school of Jerome Rothenberg. What set the Beat movement apart and what united the three poets considered in this review, was the elevation of the quotidian, the use of journals, letters and other forms of everyday writing and the predominant influence of Buddhism.
(Editor's Note: Some of the poem-excerpts may not be shown accurately in terms of their formats, due to Blogger constraints.)
John Herbert Cunningham is the host of Speaking of Poets – a half-hour radio show on Sundays on CKUW 95.9 FM. He resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada where he writes poetry, reviews and interviews. He publishes regularly in half a dozen literary magazines in Canada and the same number in the U.S. He is also a multi-instrumentalist with the free jazz group ECMW – Experimental Creative Music Workshop. He is currently studying the alto sax, the Chinese flute and the darbouka.