Commentaries - October 2007

Herbert Gold reviewed On the Road in the November 16, 1957 issue of the Nation, under the title: "Hip Cool, Beat — and Frantic." Here's a passage of the review that'll give you a good sense of the whole:

The hipster-writer is a perennial perverse bar mitzvah boy, proudly announcing: “Today I am a madman. Now give me the fountain pen.” The frozen thugs gathered west of Sheridan Square or in the hopped-up cars do not bother with talk. That’s why they say “man” to everybody — they can’t remember anybody’s name. But Ginsberg and Kerouac are frantic. They care too much, and they care aloud. “I’m hungry, I’m starving, let’s eat right now!” That they care mostly for themselves is a sign of adolescence, but at least they care for something, and it’s a beginning. The hipster is past caring. He is the criminal with no motivation in hunger, the delinquent with no zest, the gang follower with no love of the gang; i.e., the worker without ambition or pleasure in work, the youngster with undescended passions, the organization man with sloanwilsonian gregorypeckerism in his cold, cold heart.

This is George Herlick's b&w; photo called "Bread in Window," taken on April 21, 1937, part of a series called "City Scenes" that Herlick shot as part of the Photographic Division of the New York City Fine Arts Project, a New Deal enterprise. The remarkable online New Deal Network has organized this and hundreds of other Depression-era photographs in its Photo Library. Herlick is also known for his photographs of rural scenes in the city, such as "Haycart".

Part of the problem, part of the solution — '60s cant. Yet, saying just that, our old friend Newt Gingrich is back, not apparently running for President, but launching a new project he thinks is going to solve our problems. It's called "American Solutions". For some reason — unclear to me even though I've read two articles about it — Newt felt it was important to go into a virtual space to announce the project and "discourse" with Americans. He chose Second Life, where I myself have an avatar (in a thus far failed attempt to locate virtual poetry readings and see if it's a good venue for the Writers House). Sarah Posner of AlterNet has written about Newt in Second Life, and here's a paragraph from her story:

This past weekend, it was the "virtual" incarnation of Newt that was on display. Just days before it turned out that another manifestation — ingrich the presidential candidate — was but a flicker that would fail to light the way for a fractured conservative movement, Gingrich's avatar was making an exclusive appearance in the virtual reality world called Second Life. Like in Gingrich's real life, he was confronted by hecklers and naked women. Gingrich looked right past them and extolled the virtues of political discourse in the "metaverse." On its own news network, Second Life reported that he called the virtual world "part of the solution."

To the editor:

You rightly express disappointment ("A Muse Unplugged," Oct. 8) that WBAI feels it cannot afford to risk airing a recording of Allen Ginsberg's ecstastic performance of "Howl" to mark the 50th year since the poem went on trial. Let's face it. Many thousands of American students will read the poem in print this year (same coarse language — only printed, not spoken), whether the FCC chills it off the FM airwaves.

Yet there is nothing quite like hearing Ginsberg declaim it. Fortunately, most of your readers and WBAI's listeners can listen to recordings of the poem on PennSound ( PennSound, a nonprofit, noncommerical site, beyond the FCC's reach, makes these sound files available to everyone: they're downloadable, and free, and they're there with permission of the Allen Ginsberg Trust. Radio or not, the poet's visionary yawping can travel freely in 1's and 0's along these new paths.

Al Filreis
Faculty Director, Kelly Writers House
Co-Director, PennSound

Charles Bernstein
Regan Chair of English
Co-Director, PennSound

A Muse Unplugged
October 8, 2007

At the height of his bardic powers, Allen Ginsberg could terrify the authorities with the mere utterance of the syllable “om” as he led street throngs of citizens protesting the Vietnam War. Ginsberg reigned as the raucous poet of American hippiedom and as a literary pioneer whose freewheeling masterwork “Howl” prevailed against government censorship in a landmark obscenity trial 50 years ago.

It is with a queasy feeling of history in retreat that poetry lovers discover that WBAI, long the radio flagship of cocky resistance to government excess, decided last week that it couldn’t risk a 50th anniversary broadcast of the late poet’s recording of “Howl.” The station retreated out of fear that the Federal Communications Commission would levy large obscenity fines that might bankrupt the small-budget station.

The retreat was hardly an exercise of the sort of rhetorical paranoia that listeners rate as part of the charm of WBAI, an outlet with a brave history in broadcasting such free speech as George Carlin’s comedic “seven dirty words.” No, this time the broadcaster had to be mindful that the F.C.C. had already fined CBS $550,000 for its absurd nanosecond telecast of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.” Stations are rightly worried these days that airing “fleeting expletives” can cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop.

The result is a growing tendency toward self-censorship. WBAI is hardly alone in flinching. Public broadcasting stations already are editing Ken Burns’s new documentary on World War II, eliminating pungent four-letter talk from the eyewitness accounts of G.I. Joe.

If Ginsberg were still with us, he would undoubtedly pen a mocking line or two about his poem being banned from the airwaves 50 years after it was ruled not to be obscene. Congress, of course, could redress the F.C.C.’s bullying powers if it wanted to. But lately, the Capitol’s most energetic broadcast agenda has been conservative members’ organizing against any attempt to restore the fairness doctrine to political broadcast, which could crimp the 24/7 rants of right-wing talk radio. The poet would understand, having once noted: “Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.”

I continue to be fascinated by the reputation of imagism in later decades.I continue to be fascinated by the reputation of imagism in later decades. Folks less rather than more knowledgeable about poetry — and who are also suspicious of modernism — tend to let imagism stand in for all of modernism. So no matter how inaccurate such substitution is, imagism, that fleeting movement, has had a disproportionate effect, less perhaps on later poets themselves than on poetry's reputation.

Robert Pinsky in The Situation in Poetry (1976) is an antimodernist. He's not adamant or overt about it, except at moments. One such moment is his assessment of imagism. He looked around at poetry in the 1970s and sadly found imagism's influence. "[T]he techniques of 'imagism,' which convey the powerful illusion that a poet presents, rather than tells about, a sensory experience" are "tormented premises" for poetry. Yet such premises have "become a tradition: a climate of implicit expectation and tacit knowledge" and this "aspect of modernism ... effaces or holds back the warmth of authorial commitment to feeling or idea, in favor of a surface cool under the reader's initial touch."*

[] Some imagist materials.

* p. 3; thanks for Robert Archambeau's "Roads Less Traveled: Two Paths out of Modernism" in The Mechanics of Mirage: Postwar American Poetry (2000).