Beat & the Brats

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:20

    Imagine Jack Micheline, half pint riding the left hip pocket of his holy corduroys, walking sunset, one arm around the sky, the other around the Earth, as he rages against The Clowns who've denied The Poet's Blood?then get a firm grip on your soul, bust the cover of Outlaw Bible and let the century gush.

    Oy. One must resist the urge to fling the book across the room having read only this. It's no more embarrassing than most of the beatnik nostalgia of the past decade. And there's writing here worth reading, if you can put up with the silly I'm-such-a-rebel attitudinizing that taints the whole project, from much of the poetry to the motorcycle jacket motif of the cover art. (Underground anarchist ass-pain Bob Black once proposed a bumpersticker: IF YOU CAN SPELL POSEUR, YOU ARE ONE. Similarly, if you have to tell us what an "outlaw" you are, you aren't.)

    You can see I'm fighting a natural impulse to negativity here. If for no other reason than that I know or at least have met over the years a fair sampling of the writers collected here. Some of them are even good writers, and even the ones who are lousy writers tend to be mostly decent people, and harmless; they could be making a fatwa or making nerve gas or making me a bad meal at an expensive restaurant, but they're only making bad poetry. It's not such a big offense.

    Beat poetry always was one part poetry to nine parts posturing anyway. For every decent Beat writer there have been 10,000 posers who think it's hip to say they dig the writing, and another 10,000 bad, bad doggerel writers who think that looking and acting like a poet makes you one. There were a few great writers among the Beats, but taken as a whole the beatnik crowd remains easily despised as the first in a long line of postwar scenes that seemed less interested in making poetry than in making poetry cool?an impulse that has clearly lived on in the neo-Beat poetry slam, spoken word and Nuyorican scenemaking of the 90s, rendering large patches of the work presented there annoying, bratty crap.

    All of these crowds are handily brought together in this thick tome by editor Alan Kaufman, a poetry scenemaker in San Francisco (with, I would imagine, plenty of input from Thunder's Mouth publisher Neil Ortenberg). The dozens and dozens of writers span the last half century of American I'm-a-renegade poetry. There are many star names, if that's what you'd be looking for, from Beat OGs Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti, Corso, Huncke, et al., to Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, Che Guevara, Tom Waits and Tupac Shakur.

    Of the OGs, the one most glaring MIA is Bukowski; Ortenberg explains in a publisher's note that they couldn't get repro rights. The larger question is whether the world needed another anthology stringing together smatterings from the works of Kerouac-Ginsberg-Burroughs, et al., each of whom is better represented in his own context and at full length. You want to anthologize The Very Best of the Beats, just put out a single volume that incorporates the whole texts of The Dharma Bums, Naked Lunch and Howl and be done with it.

    For historical if not always esthetic reasons, the Bible is more interesting when it samples some lesser-known Beat figures like Charles Plymell, Ray Bremser, Harold Norse and Micheline, he of the holy corduroys, whose death inspired the collection. Depending on whom you talk to, Micheline was either the quintessential free spirit and saintly hobo of Beat mythology, or a pain-in-the-ass drunk who dined out on his second-tier legend for 40 years. He was not a great poet. Plymell and Bremser both turned a phrase in their day, and Norse is a real poet.

    The hippie era is best represented here by two guys who died young. There's Richard Brautigan, who probably really does deserve a second look now, and the more obscure d.a. levy, whose "revival" is just getting under way. Levy's work ranged from soaring Howl-like visions to the plainspoken, faux-demotic blandness that besets so much Beat and neo-Beat poetics?it ain't poetry, it's just prose in short lines.

    If you've been paying attention over the past decade or so, I don't think you'll be terribly surprised by the contemporary work here?Maggie Estep and Eileen Myles, Reg E. Gaines and Penny Arcade, David Wojnarowicz, Sapphire, Regie Cabico, Max Blagg, Carl Watson, Jennifer Blowdryer, the entire crews from the Unbearables and Nuyorican and Chicago and San Francisco slam scenes. Oh, and Mumia?not much of a poet, but at least he's a for-real outlaw. Again, the familiarity of much of this work to anyone likely to crack the book raises a question, if it's one every anthology must answer.

    Avoiding all the ones here I know personally, I'll say two of the better representatives of the 90s shout-it-out school of poetry are Gaines ("punk motherfucka coward ass bitch/your hairs too straight and you walk with a switch") and Hank Hyena, who must have fun in a live room doing "William, I Giggled with Your Girlfriend," which starts "'cause I was high & she was high & you were bye-bye out of town?/William, we were both lonely without you," and goes on like "William, I kissed your lover's lips?I curled my paws around her hips/we cuddled on your couch 'cause I'm your closest friend, William,/I wanna feel everything you feel in this world" and "William, I dallied with your dearest 'cause I feared she was gonna sleep with a creep/when you were out of town & I wanted it to be somebody you can trust/William, the last bag of marijuana you sold me was crap so you owe me $10."

    Not to pick on a dead guy, but the late David Lerner, a founder of San Francisco's Cafe Barbar scene, demonstrated both the highs and lows of the 90s neo-Beat esthetic?its capacity for the visionary pulled low by its fascination with dopey shock-value and slang?in a piece called "Mein Kampf," which begins:

    all I want to do is make poetry famous all I want to do is burn my initials into the sun all I want to do is read poetry from the middle of a burning building standing in the fast lane of the freeway falling from the top of the Empire State Building the literary world sucks dead dog dick Boy I wish some friend had talked him out of those two lines.

    Now lookit, my world was rocked the first time I read Kerouac as a high school kid, too. I've not been immune to all the Beat nostalgia that's been pumped out. I thought the thing was peaking in the mid-90s, but I've been surprised that the volume of this stuff continues to be cranked out with no apparent abating. We get review copies of Kerouac books in here like Star Trek books, and we seem to get two or three of those every day. Last week alone, besides The Outlaw Bible, we got: Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings, a collection of youthful Kerouac scraps ("...In his/eternal search for truth, the/poet is alone") edited by Paul Marion (Viking, 249 pages, $24.95); Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969, the second volume of his correspondence edited by Ann Charters (Viking, 514 pages, $34.95); the paperback reprint of Ellis Amburn's Subterranean Kerouac (St. Martin's, 435 pages, $16.95); a paperback reissue of Neeli Cherkovski's Whitman's Wild Children, originally published in 1988, with portraits of a dozen Beat poets (Steerforth, 325 pages, $18); and finally the paperback Some of the Dharma (Penguin, 420 pages, $17.95).

    In one week. Enough.

    Mike Topp, one of the Unbearables anthologized in The Outlaw Bible, has a tiny, palm-sized chapbook out, Basho's Milk Dud (Low-Tech Press, 16 pages, $6), dedicated to the wisdom of Basho, drunken Zen master. For some reason every time I write praising a new Topp production I get at least one angry letter telling me Topp's work isn't funny like I say it is, just stupid. Here are my two favorite lessons from the book. The first is "Basho's Milk Dud":

    Basho said to his disciple: "When you have a Milk Dud, I will give it to you. If you have no Milk Dud, I will take it away from you."

    And this is "How To Write a Haiku":

    A well-known American poet was asked how to compose a haiku. "The usual method is three lines," Ron explained, "The first line contains five syllables; the second line, seven syllables; the third line, five syllables. One of my poems illustrates this: First: five syllables Second: seven syllables Third: five syllables (Low-Tech Press, 30-73 47th St., Long Island City 11103.)

    Dirty Danny Update Ted Rall's libel suit against Danny Hellman had its first day in court this Monday. A New York County Supreme Court judge denied Hellman's motion to dismiss, but urged the two sides to reach a settlement before taking the case to the next level, which could be a costly discovery phase. Hellman, who's already racked up something like $10,000 in lawyers' fees, had not previously offered to settle, which would presumably entail his paying Rall's lawyers as well as his own. Rall has said publicly he'd be amenable, but it's also clear he'll settle only if he feels he's punished Hellman sufficiently.

    I can't hide whose side I'm on in this. You'll recall it all started in August when the Voice ran Rall's midlife-crisis rant against comics guru Art Spiegelman, of whom he seems hugely envious, prompting furious online debate among comics types, including a Hellman parody of Rall. Rall is suing Hellman for defamation and loss of potential income (he claims he was in Hollywood pitching a concept for a sitcom and was so "distracted" by Hellman's prank that the pitch went poorly).

    Two weeks ago Rall and Steve Brodner, another illustrator, were the "Breakfast Table" correspondents on Slate. "I myself have been keeping busy maintaining the aftermath of my Village Voice piece on Art Spiegelman," Rall noted, then strangely added, "but I honestly wish this whole thing would go away." He went on to decry "the overnight disintegration of the once-interesting 'Week in Review' section" in the Sunday Times. "It was never perfect, but the 'Week in Review' used to run the more daring and adventurous editorial cartoons around (stuff that actually editorialized!) by Tom Tomorrow, Ruben 'Tom the Dancing Bug' Bolling, and yours truly; now it's back to cross-hatching, elephants and donkeys, and dumb gags about the news."

    Yes, Ted, we all agree "Week in Review" was much better when you were in it more often.

    His performance in a long interview in the October Comics Journal, the industry magazine for comics types, sounds like he's having a nervous breakdown. "I knew I would catch shit," he says of the Voice piece. "But anyone who signs his name to a story should be willing to take heat." Later, he utters the bizarre boast:

    "Right now, I have power over Hellman," he said. "My knee is on his throat. I have to ask myself, am I going to be an asshole and crush him or am I going to let him breathe a little?... I'm still going to hit him."

    This from a guy who whinnies in the same article that Hellman's online message board postings about him were "incredibly violent. I'm afraid for my safety."

    Cartoonist Kim Deitch, who concedes he's a friend of Spiegelman, summed up his impression of Rall's behavior in Comics Journal: "All I can figure is he's a very troubled person. It's entertaining to watch him go through his paces, but he's just an asshole. It's like you don't want to go near the guy now. There's a lot of bad karma attached to him. Some bad juju going down. This business with?Danny a perfect example. Where's the guy's sense of humor? It's pathetic. He's taking no prisoners. He's out to hurt somebody."

    Afterwords And Really Keen, Too. Time will serialize a new Caleb Carr novel starting with next week's issue, according to an Alex Kuczynski report in the Oct. 25 New York Times. James Kelly, Time's deputy managing editor, told Kuczynski that he and managing editor Walter Isaacson "decided it would be really cool for a novelist to write a fiction series for us, just like in Dickens' day, but about the future." Can you dumb that down a little further for us, Jim? Thanks, Kim and David, But We've Thought It Over and Decided Not to Change Our Name To Print. Kuczynski's old pals Kim Hastreiter and David Hershkovits at Paper must still be pouting over the (latest) licking they recently got from MUGGER. They managed to run a full-page puff piece for the upcoming boxing match between performance artist David Leslie and NYPress' Jonathan Ames, which is sponsored by NYPress, without mentioning the name NYPress once. It took some contorting, like the bit where it says Ames is "one of downtown's most popular spinners of personal tales, both in print and before adoring audiences."