Friday, 14 June 2013

WHITMAN'S WILD CHILDREN: THE HEADPRESS REVIEW

Walt Whitman is a great place to start any examination of the Beat poets. Ginsberg acknowledges his debt explicitly in his wonderful “A Supermarket in California”. The liberating flow of Whitman's American free verse influenced Ginsberg even more than his status as an emerging 19th century gay icon, but there was also a sense, that carries through in Ginsberg, of Whitman's importance as a putative man of the streets, constantly out among the public, engaged with and writing about ordinary people, to the extent of his visiting Civil War battlefields where he comforted the wounded boys. Sadly, given such a good starting point, Cherkowski’s idea of “man of the streets” may be more an image of a proto-hippie Walt cruising the docks for willing sailors. But love beads were never a part of Whitman’s accessorizing, not even when his hair was long.

Actually, Whitman might be a role model for Cherkowski himself, because this book could easily have been subtitled “Song of Myself”. It's a kind of Neeli in Wonderland, as it were, and sometimes this preoccupation with self is downright hilarious. Cherkowski tells us Ginsberg’s first words on meeting him were “You’re fat”, and Neeli riposted “You’re old”. He then reports, deadpan, “Things were never smooth between us after that”. Johnson shat on Boswell from far greater heights without creating undue bumps in their relationship!
The high point of Neeli’s life appears to be when his own poetry is praised by some youngsters who mistake him, in his beads and buttons, for Ginsberg himself, or maybe when he beats the great man at Trivial Pursuit, which turns out to be one of Ginsberg’s favourite pastimes, if not a metaphor for Beat poetry.

It might just be a metaphor for this book however, for it really is a Beatnik Trivial Pursuit game between covers. We know the Beats have been turned into an industry, a marketing concept if not gimmick, and there is a lot of mileage in constantly recreating a neighbourhood tour of San Francisco in the late 50s, or the Village in the 60s. Hell, Michael McClure (one of the 12 poets discussed here), always adept at riding the waves toward the next celebrity or grant, once wrote a book called Scratching The Beat Surface. That seems deep by Neeli’s standards.

As a critic, Neeli is a fine tour guide.He makes no bones in refusing to make judgements about Harold Norse, who deserves close examination, not least for his influence. But when I wrote Norse's obit back in 2009, I mentioned it was hard not to make him sound like a literary Zelig to the Beats, and I wonder if that is a role which might have been inherited. Neeli gets overcome by the faux sentimentality of Jack Micheline, just gives up and lets it all wash over him. When he’s asked to review John Wieners’ Selected Poems, he’s again simply overcome with feelings, yet actually his take on this unjustly neglected poet is probably the best chapter in the book. And its nice to see attention paid again to people like Philip Lamantia.

Otherwise, there is far better stuff out there on the major subjects: Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Bukowski. Neeli says Buk “didn’t buy the Eisenhower 50s, didn’t buy the Kennedy 60s” but misses the point: that was when Buk did his best writing, and when Buk did buy into the Reagan 80s, he lurched into self-parody. Of course, self-parody is a staple of the Beats, and Gregory Corso’s ever-inventive riffs are the other highlight here. Corso tells him: “I’m the elder now. A daddy. You who do so love the Gregory got the goodie gumdrops from me.” It sounds like the sort of thing Corso might say. Then Neeli, calling him a pied piper, marches off with Corso through the streets of North Beach, reminding me of nothing as much as a happy Boswell.

The other link to Whitman, which Neeli ignores, is that Walt was a major league mama’s boy, sleeping at the foot of her bed long into adulthood. This problematic close relationship with mothers is a theme that runs through the Beat poets, most notably Ginsberg and Kerouac. And so with Neeli. When he takes 250 mils of bad acid in 1978 what does he do? He calls mom, and she advises him to find Lawrence Ferlinghetti! Which despite the tripping he does, but by the time he does Ferlinghetti is sitting in a café reading the New York Times. Far out! Maybe Neeli’s Mom could have drawn him a map, and perhaps Neeli would have got us to Ferlinghetti sometime before disco became king.

Whitman's Wild Children: Portraits of 12 Poets

by Neeli Cherkowski

Steerforth Press (South Royalton, Vermont) 1999
ISBN 9781883642860 $18 (UK£12.00)

NOTE: A somewhat different version of this review appeared in Headpress 20.

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