Sunday, May 07, 2006

Day Fourteen

I want to mention a few writers here who are not on my reading list but perhaps should have been.

Bob Kaufman, one of the few African-American Beat poets and the man sometimes credited with inventing the word Beatnik, is often dismissed as a minor figure because he was supposedly a bit crazy and his poems are pretty cliche-ridden and derivative - "unselfconscious" might be a kinder and perhaps more accurate word. But my interest doesn't stem from the supposed quality of the poetry but from the role of the poet in creating the social phenomenon. (If I were only interested in excellent poetry I probably would not go to many spoken word events.) Kaufman is a much-overlooked figure, a pure jazz-poet who insisted that poetry was primarily oral, who would recite his poems from memory on the streets (and often got arrested for it), and who lived a non-conformist life more than any of the other beats. Non-conformism may not have been good for his life, of course - he was a drug addict, was sometimes without a home, got put in jail and mental institutions and was subjected to shock therapy against his will. When Kennedy was assassinated he took a vow of silence which he kept for a decade until the Vietnam war was ended - and then his first words were a poem declaimed in a coffeehouse.

Vachel Lindsay was a white American poet at the turn of the century who had an interest in black poetry and musical forms - he claimed to have "discovered" Langston Hughes when Hughes was working in a diner - but who today is usually seen as an example of the deep-rooted racism of his day. His most famous poem, "The Congo" uses racist stereotypes to glorify African music and culture - sort of like other primitivist movements in Modernism - but it's interesting in its use of abstract sound that prefigures sound poetry. He is sometimes cited as one of the first jazz poets, and he considered himself a sort of modern troubadour, selling his poetry on the streets and insisting on the oral and folk aspects of poetry - which apparently gained him the acknowledgement of W.B. Yeats.

William S. Burroughs was of course connected to the Beat poets by friendship / habit / aesthetic outlook, and although you could say he was a novelist rather than a poet, the techniques he used (like the cut-up and fold-in) meant that he treated words in a much more plastic way than a plot-oriented novelist. He said himself that Naked Lunch was a work that you could start on any page. He was more obsessed with language than story. And if his prose work blurs the genre boundaries with poetry, his work as a spoken word artist is a reminder that spoken word isn't specific to verse forms. He developed many of his original techniques in collaboration with Brion Gysin, whom I will perhaps mention later.

John Giorno is a curious poet / performance figure from New York - known as, among other things, the actor/subject in Warhol's film Sleep - who has done things like the Dial-a-Poem experiments. His improvisational energy - using various artistic approaches, a cultural tactician in Michel de Certeau's sense of the word - is really important to the spirit of spoken word today I think.

There are many others, poets and artists, whose names come up and who ultimately I may want to acknowledge in writing. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Carl Dunbar, Quincy Troupe, Jim Carroll, Laurie Anderson, Miranda July, Patti Smith. Right now I'm sort of focussing on Americans, because I'm in the United States of, and because I've been trying to flesh out my understanding of writing scenes in the 20th century in this country. Other people I think it would be interesting to look at in connection with everything else on my list: Tristan Tzara, Jerzy Grotowski, Abbie Hoffman, Leonard Cohen, Filippo Marinetti, and Annie Sprinkle.


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