There’s a phenomenon here in the scholarly world that occurs when you begin to critically group writers under certain classifications. What occurs is the “emergence” of “major,” “secondary,” and “tertiary/peripheral” figures when one historically charts the development of art and literature in an era. When most hear the phrase “New York School,” they think of its “Mount Rushmore”–Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler. Similarly, when many think of the Beat Generation, and especially when we talk to someone who has never heard of this so-called Beat Generation, we namedrop its Rushmore–Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs & Corso, hoping that one of those names (and likely it will be one of the first three) is familiar.
I’ve spoken with many scholars who find this condition lamentable. I’ve met people with impressive interest and knowledge on these “secondary” or “peripheral” figures who vehemently assert not only the equivalent primacy of their subject of inquiry but the lacking or lesser nature of the Rushmore giants of either “school” or “generation.” I particularly get a lot of complaints about Allen Ginsberg.
It’s said that the victors write the history, and yes, Allen would fall into that category of “victor,”–he quite literally did write, document, and champion the works of his closest and most distant “contemporaries” (the artists & poets he met and knew–which numbered in the hundreds). What people who question the strength or legitimacy of Allen’s work should remember is how much Allen did “off the court” to bring poetry and literature to a wider audience, to fight against censorship for all the arts, and to try to bring about a more compassionate political and social atmosphere in which the voices of the people (and of artists particularly) could be heard without fear of retaliation. And one solid look at Ginsberg’s classic Deliberate Prose book of essays proves this–the contents of which still today can serve as a valid “Activist Handbook” in our troubled American political climate, but remain valid the world over. Allen did this with consummate excellence, but is it really fair to say that because of those things, which were related to the poetry but in and of themselves were not the poetry, that it makes Allen somehow greater or more important than someone else?
Conversely, we have poets, writers, and artists of incredible skill whose achievements are still obscured by relative anonymity. These are artists who’ve inspired and been lauded by throngs of hugely varying individuals and groups that just don’t seem to share the spotlight that Allen, Jack, or Bill–or Frank, John, and Kenneth–continually receive. In the case of the so-called “New York School,” it gets prickly almost immediately–because unlike the “Beat” moniker, its “four major figures” decried and disagreed with the idea of a “school” and with the name “New York School” itself. The line that O’Hara was the only one that continued to live in New York City throughout his epoch–with Ashbery spending so many years abroad during the “1st Generation New York School” bloom–is often cited. Then, unlike the Beats, there is a more uniformly defined “Second Generation”–with figures such as Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard and Kenward Elmslie often grouped here. Then, you have a figure like Ed Sanders–Beat to the very bone–but a New Yorker and a seminal part of New York intellectual and countercultural life from those shapeshifting years of 1962-1969. These “2nd Generation” poets were writing their earliest mature attempts at poetry a while after O’Hara, Ashbery, Koch and Schuyler had become published authors. The fact to cite here is that childhood friends Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett left Tulsa, Oklahoma for the Big Apple after reading O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency (published in 1957) in high school. High school!
But Kenward Elmslie is even overshadowed by his longtime companion, Joe Brainard, whose I Remember is now widely regarded as a classic–but Kenward Elmslie was a name I’d not even heard before I met poet/publisher Ken Mikolowski. Strange too, because Elmslie is one of the only figures to take the sort of musicality in language championed by Ginsberg & Kerouac and utilized by such exemplars as Charles Reznikoff and James Joyce before them to a newly individualized level. When I first read Circus Nerves from Elmslie, I was electrified by his ear for language. It was musical through-&-through, and when I learned of his musical talent and of how he wrote songs for Broadway (and even a song for Nat King Cole!) before ever becoming a published poet, it all made more sense. There is a humor, a madness, and a musicality in Elmslie that is just so exemplary for me, and I think the 1970s were a bewilderingly profound and prolific time for him. His 70s work (much of which is available as a part of this month’s feature) stands tall (and here I am sounding like one of the lamenting chorus of Beat-&-Beyond scholars mentioned earlier) is better than much of what I’ve read from his contemporaries.
In conclusion, someone like Ginsberg must be applauded because his commitment to poetry was infused with an underlying socio-politicultural vision; because he put into actual practice the philosophy of Whitman–and because he was among the first artists to utilize the Modern Media Consciousness (the same one Warhol exploited in his art) to educate the populace at large. To put a mirror to our face in the hope that if we saw ourselves differently, saw what we were doing, that we might see and treat our world with greater regard. But a true scholar knows that if we were to spend all our time with such a figure, we would be selling ourselves short. Does Cezanne’s art falter because he wasn’t the outgoing promotional mastermind that Claude Monet was? Henri Matisse didn’t think so, and neither do I. Others focus on their art and their lives in a more personal way, and in doing so give greater to the world at large–but with that side sketched out, figures like Ginsberg deserve all the credit, praise, and even notoriety given them–for it is what they worked for. This distinction is once again left to biography, and only by knowing so much of the lives of these individuals can we take even one step closer to a final word or analysis.
Such is the fruit of our inquiry as scholars in the Beat-&-Beyond community, and be sure to check out this month’s 25 featured items–10% off for the month of August only–and reserve for yourself the satisfaction that only deep scholarship can give.