“Every day is an experience. Every day is an adventure.”
“Pay attention to anybody and everybody, and you’ll be amazed at what you can learn.”
Walt Whitman himself!
If you visit the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site and Interpretive Center, you’ll notice that there are a LOT of photographs of the Good Gray Poet. I don’t mean three or four distinguished portraits artfully framed and hung. I mean an entire wall is covered with various portraits of the great American poet.
The tour guides at the museum will tell you that Whitman understood the power of portraiture as a branding tool and harnessed it for all it was worth when it came to marketing his literary output. In fact, he believed his self image was even greater than his name. When he published his poetry collection Leaves of Grass in 1855 he included Samuel Hollyer’s engraving of him in work clothes and a hat [pictured above] — and didn’t even bother including his own name on his book!
With all those selfies, you might say Walt Whitman was the original Kim Kardashian!
It’s Walt Whitman’s 196th Birthday! …Or a Post that Includes References to President Lincoln and Bon Jovi31 May
Here I am in 2013 standing outside Walt Whitman’s Birthplace State Historic Site and Interpretive Center in Long Island.
Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in Huntington, Long Island. He’s best known for Leaves of Grass. American schoolchildren are probably most familiar with the poem “O Captain! My Captain!” from the poetry collection. Written in 1865 and not included in Leaves of Grass until the fourth edition, the poem is about the death of President Abraham Lincoln.
There’s so much more to Whitman than that, though.
Walt Whitman is a complex and endlessly fascinating figure of the American poetry scene. He is regarded as the father of free verse poetry. He was also a reporter. He wrote a temperance novel: Franklin Evans (1842). He didn’t believe that all the works attributed to Shakespeare were actually Shakespeare’s. (Hm… what would Miguel Algarin say?) He at first called for the abolition of slavery … and then later thought the movement was a threat to democracy. He’s been inducted into the Legacy Walk, which celebrates LGBT history and people. He passed away in Camden, and the Garden State claimed him in the New Jersey Hall of Fame; that same year (2009), fellow literary luminaries William Carlos Williams and F. Scott Fitzgerald were inducted in the category of “general” while Whitman was inducted in the category of “historical.” (Jon Bon Jovi was one of the inductees honored in the category “arts and entertainment.) Andrew Carnegie said Whitman was “the great poet of America so far.”
Has any other “great poet of America” come along who has taken Whtiman’s place? It’s difficult to say, but this week we’ll be honoring the Good Gray Poet and talking about the poets that have been inspired by him.
Yep! You guessed it. The Beats.
As April closes out, I dream of warmer days spent reading poetry by the sea. I think of Jack Kerouac captivated by the sound of the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, the poem “Sea” he wrote about it and how his friend and fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti influenced the poem.
Years earlier, Gothic poet Christina Rossetti had written that the sea sounds like moaning.
Christina Rossetti’s “By the Sea”
Why does the sea moan evermore?
Shut out from heaven it makes its moan.
It frets against the boundary shore;
All earth’s full rivers cannot fill
The sea, that drinking thirsteth still.
Sheer miracles of loveliness
Lie hid in its unlooked-on bed:
Anemones, salt, passionless,
Blow flower-like; just enough alive
To blow and multiply and thrive.
Shells quaint with curve, or spot, or spike,
Encrusted live things argus-eyed,
All fair alike, yet all unlike,
Are born without a pang, and die
Without a pang, – and so pass by.
What does the sea sound like to you?
Allen Ginsberg hung a portrait of Walt Whitman in his home. He said his most memorable day as a student at Newark’s East Side High School was when his English teacher Francis Durbin read Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to the class. You can really hear a lot of Walt Whitman in Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. I mean, literally, he writes about Whitman in “A Supermarket in California.” More than just that, though, Ginsberg echoes Whitman’s themes. Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” is one such poem that seems simply a more old-fashioned version of Ginsberg’s poetry.
Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing”I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench—the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song—the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon
intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother—or of the young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or
washing—Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day—At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.
In honor of National Poetry Month, I wanted to share some poems.
I write a lot about the road. I write about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and even wrote a whole book about it called Burning Furiously Beautiful. When I was much younger, though, all the way back in elementary school, I encountered Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Here it is for your reading pleasure.
Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Frost begins his poem, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, / And sorry I could not travel both.” It reminds me of the Gregory Corso quote: “If you have a choice of two things and can’t decide, take both.” It’s not always that easy, though, is it? You can’t always choose to go both left and right at the same time. You can’t always choose to stay and to go. Sometimes you have to make a choice.
Robert Frost says, “I took the one less traveled by.” And that’s certainly what Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and the many other poets and writers associated with the Beat Generation did. They choose the road less traveled.
Choosing the road less traveled is not an easy choice, though. It is an unfamiliar one. It is one without precedent. It comes with risk.
Sometimes, though, it’s worth it. It can’t be a reckless risk. It must be, as my father would say, a calculated risk.
At the Burroughs 101 reading, Three Rooms Press announced that their next reading at Cornelia Street Cafe would be Women on Top, featuring “five feisty females”: Pam Belluck, Hettie Jones, Margot Olavarria, Marci Blackman, and Beth Lisick, and hosted by Three Rooms Press’ Kat Georges. My friend and I decided on the spot, without even consulting our schedules, that we were going.
The main reason I knew I had to be at this reading was Hettie Jones. As a Beat scholar, I’ve long admired Hettie Jones for being a woman who was more than just a muse — she is a writer with her own voice and transcends categorization. I first heard her reading at the Women of the Beat Generation panel at the Bowery Poetry Club, which incidentally was the first time I ever ventured into Bob Holman‘s poetry venue, which became an important part of my own literary upbringing. Later, while studying creative writing at The New School, one of my instructors introduced me to Hettie because he knew I was interested in Beat literature. She was so down-to-earth and honest. She talked with me for a long time, and I greatly valued her insight into the role of women in the Beat Generation. The last time I heard her read was at 2013’s Downtown Literary Festival, where she read at McNally Jackson. Obviously, it had been way too long since I’d heard her read! I loved, loved, loved the poems she selected to read at Three Rooms Press’ Women on Top reading. She read about driving, about New York City, and about the 1940s. Jones didn’t self-analyze, but what I found particularly fascinating to think about was how driving was almost a feminist act at the time. It’s not that women didn’t know how to drive; it’s that the men usually took over the driving. Jack Kerouac, however, hated driving. Occasionally, he took the wheel, but oftentimes he rode Greyhound or let his buddy Neal Cassady do the driving. I don’t think it would be fair to make some sort of leap and question Kerouac’s masculinity because he wasn’t a man who liked driving, but I do think it’s fair to say Jones didn’t let culture dictate what she could or couldn’t do as a woman. She blazed her own path.
Driving appeared to be the theme of the night. Margot Olavarria, the original bass player for the punk band The Go-Go’s, told tales from life on the road. The world of rock’n’roll is so full of men’s stories that I appreciated hearing what it was like a woman’s experience of life out on tour.
Marci Blackman had a road connection too — the award-winning novelist is an avid cyclist. Check this out: “An avid cyclist and veteran of the Sister Spit Rambling Road Show, Blackman once spent six weeks in a van with 11 queer writers on a cross country spoken word tour and 12 weeks, alone on a bicycle, pedaling from San Francisco to the outer banks of North Carolina.”
Beth Lisick is one of those authors whose name is everywhere, so I was excited to hear her read. She did not disappoint. She is a true performer, an author who makes readings lively and entertaining. She read from her work-in-progress. Now I need to work my way through her other five books.
Pam Belluck is on the health and science staff of The New York Times, and even before that she covered a wide range of fascinating news topics. She regaled the audience with stories of what it was like being a pregnant woman covering major news events.
Attending Three Rooms Press’ Burroughs 101 celebration at Cornelia Street Cafe has become an annual event for my friend and me. Last year’s phenomenal readings culminating in an epic communal reading brought the spirit of Burroughs and the Beat Generation to life, and it was no surprise that this year there were even more people in the audience than at the centennial event.
Anne Waldman is captivating. I cannot keep my eyes off her when she recites her poetry. I can’t even call what she does “reading.” She sings, chants, tells stories. It’s deeper than performance. It’s like she becomes the poem. I heard her read at the First Blues event honoring Allen Ginsberg’s work at Housing Works. With Ginsberg, she founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. She was also friends with William S. Burroughs so it felt special to hear her read her friend’s work. Her son, Ambrose Bye, accompanied her at the Burroughs 101 event, weaving jazz music throughout her poetry. I definitely want to see them perform together again.
Any time I get a chance to hear Steve Dalachinsky read I jump at the opportunity. The first time I ever heard the New York poet read was actually the first time I ever attended Lowell Celebrates Kerouac. After that, I ran into him at various other readings, but I am naturally shy and hate to appear fan-girlish so I was nervous about introducing myself. Fortunately, David Amram introduced me to Steve and his wife, poet Yuko Otomo, on my second trip to Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, so now I always enjoy catching up with Steve and Yuko when I see them. Steve does amazing jazz-poetry, and I tend to prefer hearing him read his own work, but he has such a reverence for Beat poetry that he gives reverence to Beat events that could otherwise come out cultish or immature.
Jan Herman is a scholar. He’s someone I’d like to just sit down in a coffee shop with and listen to him talk and tell stories. And that’s what he did at the Burroughs 101 reading. In a conversational approach, he told stories about Burroughs.
Aimee Herman kicked the evening off, bringing Burroughs’ rebellious and experimental spirit to life at Cornelia Street Cafe as she ripped up poems as she read. Burroughs, as most know, cut up his writing and rearranged it to form his work. Aimee Herman’s reading succinctly captured Burroughs’ literary methodology in that simplistic and stunning gesture.
Penny Arcade is an authentic poet on the scene since I was old enough experience the contemporary New York poetry world. She closed the evening by reading Burroughs’ aphorisms. It was the perfect ending to a perfect reading.
The Burroughs 101 celebration was hosted by Three Rooms Press’ very own Peter Carlaftes.
Because of the film Kill Your Darlings, much has been made recently of Lucien Carr’s murder of David Kammerer, but that’s not how he should be remembered. Carr served his time and tried to distance himself from that association, though he did remain lifelong friends with the people he’d met as a prank-loving student at Columbia. He even went so far as to have Allen Ginsberg take his name out of the dedication to Howl after learning of it in the first printing.
So what should we remember Lucien Carr for? He did not, after all, seek to capitalize on his name or associations with his own writing. Instead, he should remember for tirelessly working as an editor at UPI for close to five decades. There, he encouraged and molded young writers, just as he often did for his “Beat” friends.
Lucien Carr passed away on this day in 2005.
Recommended reading::: Eric Homberger’s obituary “Lucien Carr” for The Guardian.