Friday, October 23, 2009


Beats at Naropa

One of the things I've been reading recently is Beats at Naropa edited by Anne Waldman and Laura Wright (Coffee House Press, 2009), a collection of lectures, panel discussion transcripts, and similar material, drawn from the audio archives of Naropa University over a period of more than thirty years. I've only read part of it so far, am liking most of it.

Here are a few passages, picked from the book, that particularly struck me and have stayed with me as I've been reading.

"Then, we get the latest batch from the Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, Hudson Review, Partisan Review -- and I thought we had killed all those people."

-- Amiri Baraka, from "Pulling It Down or the Good Manners of Vampires," originally June 18, 2004.

"There are certain elements in folk literature that crop up worldwide, such as the motif of someone being chased by an ogre or a demon, and as they flee they throw objects over their shoulder. They throw a comb over their shoulder, it becomes a forest and blocks the way to the pursuer. They throw a pencil or a piece of stone over their shoulder, it becomes a field of stones. This is the magic chase motif that's found so widely that we have to assume it represents a really archaic stratum of literary consciousness that gives it an antiquity, twenty thousand years maybe. Since these are found in North and South America as well as in Asia and Europe, this special number of globally distributed motifs -- and since human beings have been in the western hemisphere for at least forty thousand years, and since we'll continue to think for the time being that they came from Asia, although that may be turned over eventually, then we'll have to say that by one way of transmission or another, these motifs go back to early Homo sapiens times. That's the longest span that you can hope for. And that implies that these tales and motifs have traveled through thousands of different languages." [...]

[...] "It should be remembered that without writing, a culture is perfectly able to have a full, aesthetic literary culture. Semi-professional raconteurs in a culture without writing have very well-developed memories. They can carry with them an enormous amount of lore and material. There was an old African that Melville Jacobs worked with in Dahomey in the thirties, who recited for him over three thousand different folk tales from memory. And that wasn't considered particularly extraordinary. In the village tradition of India, the great Indian classic, the Mahabharata, within which the "Bhagavad Gita" is just a chapter, is even today recited by professional raconteurs who knew it by heart, out in the villages of India. It can be a five-day performance. The raconteur comes into the village, puts up her or his banners, makes the announcements that starting on a certain day we will have the full presentation of the Mahabharata, and the people, maybe mostly the kids and the old people who have the time, will be there for five days."

-- both of the above, Gary Snyder, from "Basic Definitions," originally August 8, 1983.

"There's only one really good text, prepared also by David Erdman for Doubleday, Complete Poems and Prose of William Blake. The reason the text is important is that if you don't use the Erdman text you'll wind up with a text that somebody else has punctuated and put capitals [in] -- cleaned up Blake's capitalization and punctuation -- so you miss Blake's original nervous system imprints. The Oxford Blake, the big book of complete Blake, Oxford Press, changes it and I don't know what they do [in the Norton anthology]. Let's take a look at "Tyger." You have "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright" in the first stanza and in the last stanza you have "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright." Now in the original manuscripts it's completely different. Blake has "Tyger tyger, burning bright," I think, as the first one. "Tyger tyger," or some mark, or a period, "burning bright," but not exclamation points and the two "tygers" are together as one breath. In the last stanza it's "tyger, tyger burning bright." And if you're singing it you realize you really need that extra breath."

-- from "Sidebar: Allen Ginsberg on William Blake," originally April 19, 1991.

"That day, or another within the same week, I had to move from Union Theological Seminary, following Lucien Carr, who had moved to a hotel on 115th Street. So I decided I'd move out and go to the hotel, and I asked Jack to help me move. So we had to walk down to Columbia campus from 118th to 125th Street, through the campus, and up seven flights, down a long wooden corridor in the Theological Seminary setting to an arched brown oaken door, where I brought out my valise. I took my valise out and turned to the door, closed the door, and said, good-bye door. And Jack said ooh. Then we walked down the rest of the corridor and I said, good-bye corridor. He said, mmm. Then I said, good-bye step number one, good-bye step number two, and we had seven flights of steps to go down. He said, what do you mean? I said, well I know I'll never see it again in the same body, or if I'm in the same body it'll be twenty-five years later or forty years later and so it'll be like walking back into an ancient, interesting, classical dream." [...]

[...] So those were the kind of questions that Kerouac and I both thought about. Our first rapport was over the fact that both of us said good-bye all the time to the space where we were at that moment, realizing that the space was floating in the infinite universe and the universe was changing and that we were transient, interesting, charming phantoms, appreciating the space around, and that we were only there for an hour or two, so we were constantly saying good-bye."

-- both of the above, Allen Ginsberg talking about Jack Kerouac, from "Recollections and Gossip: First Meetings with Jack Kerouac," a panel also featuring David Amram, Gregory Corso, John Clellon Holmes, and Edie Parker Kerouac; originally July 28, 1982.

"In relation to the women of the Beat Generation, I think of this quote from Jacob Lawrence, the painter who recently died. 'We all like headlines and that type of thing. But this shouldn't be confused with the real meaning of your work. In fact, I think an artist is most fortunate when he doesn't get too much attention. The so-called art movements usually come after the fact. If you're unfortunate enough to get swept up in a movement then you'll find your self following yourself.' The first thing I thought of when I read that was Jack Kerouac, who I only knew as a drunk under the tables. I came to New York City to meet this person who really was a hero to me, and he really was only drunk all the time, beautiful, sweet, and very drunk, then I can only say that perhaps, had fate been kinder, he might have just gone on writing in relative, just relative success so that he could maybe have said more than he did.

The literary path as I see it has several components. There's the writing, for which time is usually at a premium. That's the first love, the losing of the self in the process of creation, the poem, the short story, the children's story, the novel. Then there's the research and the considered work of book reviews, essays, commissioned articles, translations, editing, where as a writer one performs part of the weave of intellectual thought of one's time. And there's the teaching, the kids, the adults, the prisoners. What all the components share is the idea of service, of serving something other than the ego, serving as the glue of a civilization, serving clarity of thought, the specific vision of your truth."

-- Janine Pommy Vega, from "Women and the Beats," a panel also featuring Anne Waldman, Hettie Jones, and Joanne Kyger; originally June 15, 2000.

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