What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Turning onto East 1st Street from the Bowery, I was looking for a gallery. Big deal, right? In that part of NYC, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. The borderlands of the East Village and SoHo are flush with small edgy show spaces, invariably containing white painted brick walls and exposed piping, adding that almost-ironic element of consistency to those amorphous paintings you’ve convinced yourself you’re beholding with an autonomous eye. In navigating my way, I didn’t have to look at building numbers to spot where I needed to be. It was pretty obvious I was in the right place when I happened upon a twenty-something young woman, complete with dyed blonde mullet and high rise jeans, sat at a bright turquoise typewriter embossed with the words “Free Haiku.”
where we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter
I had arrived at an event commemorating Allen Ginsberg, a reenactment of the Six Gallery reading on Oct. 7, 1955 – the night Howl was first read in public. Stepping inside the gallery, it became clear that the event wasn’t just any reenactment. It was an act of remembrance by the remaining Beat poets of that generation, some of whom were present at Howl’s first reading.
secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver
A predominantly older crowd swanned through the space, talking with one another while eating lemon curd tarts and finger sandwiches to the sounds of Ray Charles’s greatest hits. There was an inordinate array of beads and bangles, syncretic combinations of Native American and South Asian fashion fiascos, cravats, bandanas, all emitting an animate energy which offset the sights of walking sticks and the occasional whirr of a hearing aid.
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
Just to the right of the entrance, a canvas was attached to a wall where attendees etched names of other poets, musicians and artists they wished to commemorate. The names of great and lesser known beatniks joined by the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Cage. The more these agéd hippies talked and laughed, the more they left their conversations to go and add another name, no longer a just memorial, but a living record of the conversations at this reception, or a list of names missing from the event’s guess list.
returning years later truly bald except for a wig of blood, and tears and fingers, to the visible madman doom of the wards of the madtowns of the East,
Old and the young mingled as well, playing with dogs, smoking cigarettes outside and discussing the aspirations of the new young writers, here at the event to drink from the well. “You know what I used to do with my Haikus? I used to roll them. Turn them into joints, so I could literally smoke my own art.” One of the original disciples continued to yammer on to the young typist-poet about the need for Haikus to remain physically ephemeral, yet engrained deep inside the human soul (or lungs, in his case).
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
As the reading started, several actors were hired to portray the readers of the evening, with the exception of Michael McClure, who MC’d the proceedings. It was beautifully lighthearted. Neal Cassady and Kerouac passed around a jug of wine as Howl’s recitation began, and attendees took swigs or poured into their water cups, as if words and grapes coming together in a weird ceremony of intinction. As Ginsberg read, some yelled lines aloud with him, or shouted the words “Yeah! Go! Go!” as Kerouac drunkenly exclaimed that evening. The enthusiasm for Howl was incredible, but the mark of the elect was the snap instead of the clap to applaud. It was at this point I really felt I’d stepped out of NYC and into The Dharma Bums.
who fell on their knees in hopeless cathedrals praying for each other’s salvation and light and breasts, until the soul illuminated its hair for a second
A 45-minute break followed the reading, where projections of Ginsberg and his friends were illuminated on the far wall while a live painter created a mural of scenes from Howl underneath. The beat poets soon regathered and shared their stories of Allen and that night in the Six Gallery. Rips and shreds in their clothes were less evocative of their hipness as it was of their mourning, countercultural keriot, garments clad specially for the culmination of the afternoon: a group recitation of Kaddish.
with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.
Stepping back onto East 1st I wasn’t in the mood to be accosted by the sight of a two shiny salons, a steak house or yet one more specialty Japanese crockery shop. I didn’t want to come down from the miniature time warp. But as I got home and picked up Howl again, I realized that I had been wrong. I wasn’t in a time warp at all, but just a witness to the endurance of Ginsberg’s humor and talent. Howl doesn’t make me smile because it evokes San Francisco in the 1950s, beatniks, sexual liberation or a distaste for American culture – I smile because it’s one of the rare occasions where the reader sees their own acquaintances, their own dreams, their own sensation of being a bum in their youths.
I gotta say, I read Howl and I see Oberlin – angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
J had a half-built harpsichord in her room… and an electronic organ… and an autoharp… who sat in boxes breathing in the darkness under the bridge, and rose up to build harpsichords in their lofts
H had constantly had makeup and paint everywhere for her horror films she was making –who faded out in vast sordid movies
N recited Homer to me in Bed – who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed
J sang me Joni Mitchell while making dinner –who wept at the romance of the streets with their pushcarts full of onions and bad music
K cooked cow heart and sheep kidneys – who cooked rotten animals lung heart feet tail borsht & tortillas dreaming of the pure vegetable kingdom
A drank. Spouted German. Introduced me to Schiller – who sang out of their windows in despair, fell out of the subway window, jumped in the filthy Passaic, cried all over the street, danced on broken wineglasses barefoot smashed phonograph records of nostalgic European 1930s German jazz finished the whiskey and threw up groaning into the bloody toilet, moans in their ears and the blast of colossal steamwhistles
G cried over his boyfriend – who lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate
Professor H described Soviet food shortages and made chocolate – where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew socialist revolution
W’s a nudist – red eyed in the morning but prepared to sweeten the snatch of the sunrise, flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake
Professor C recalled sexual liberation-era Paris – who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may
Professor Y discussed her wish to be euthanized – who presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide,
On the outside, Oberlin was just as much a parody of itself as the hipsters in Howl, or the octogenarian communicants at the commemoration.
I know I’m not alone. Howl could have been written today and would still have the same exact relevance for all of us. The beauty lies is Ginsberg’s ability to articulate a certain totality of humanity’s whims and eccentricities, uncanny resemblances to those in our life who we love. Wordsmiths of this caliber are in a league of their own, joining the likes of Emerson, Thoreau and Tocqueville – the original prophets of American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, transcending time in their eternally relevant observations about the American landscape. At the same time, it’s fun, even inspiring. It reminds us of the innocence of doing something fun, something passionate about, or even something to pass the time.
I reflected on all this the day after as I sat on a tarmac at LaGuardia for 5 hours, thinking back to the girl with the typewriter. What was the Haiku thing all about? Googling it, I found the Urban Dictionary page for Hillbilly Haikus:
“A poem, spoken by hillbillies, that sounds something like haiku but doesn’t scan like it. A hillbilly haiku doesn’t fit the 5-7-5 syllable scheme, or even have three lines, because hillbillies can’t count.”
Unconfident of Delta’s ability to interpret the chronometric symbols, inspiration struck as I prepared for my flight back to Tennessee. What’s more fun than writing really bad poetry?
Tortured and beaten in the skull—What mad hallucinations of the damned that drive me out of my own skull to seek Eternity till I find Peace for Thee, O Poetry—and for all humankind call on the Origin
The Laguardia Haikus
Boarding time: 15.45.
Schedule departure: 16.30.
Actual departure: 20.03
Tarmac, tarmac, asphalt strip
Propitious with goo
Lubricating wee jet tires
Black, cobalt, asphalt floor,
yea, worn away by
air minions driving golf carts.
Ah, napping through Delta flights!
How am I still here?
Snapchat won’t load, f.m.l.
Pilot: fwah! (¡pulchritude, zing!)
He talks slow, sure, but
Adonian brownie points.
Queens is properly fugly.
So’s the weather.
So’s the moron next to me.
What scent fills my fine nostrils?
“Eau de bro” – it seems
dee-o and Axe don’t cut it.
Redneck cellulite jiggles
Off the arms of she
That crunches her Cracker Jacks
Bored bored bored bored bored bored bored
Screw you I’m really
Bored bored bored bored bored bored bored
Starvation plagues my bowels.
I want a burger.
Beer too. But mostly burger.
Ex-marine plucks his nose hair
With sausage fingers,
Now touching things I’ll touch. Ew.
Thunderstorms blow ’round this lil’
Dorothy. I swear
I spy some flying monkeys.
Passing a plane labeled “Trump”
Can’t help but wonder:
Where’s a bomb when you need one?
Two hours later, I’m parchéd
2 G&Ts plz
Double fisting 4 lyfe (burp)
Seagrams tonic tastes of piss.
But free booze is great
(Unlike Air Traffic Control)!
Zweig short stories: a bad plan
For plane reading.
Too much talk of suicide.
Dear David Foster Wallace,
“Infinite Jest” drones
Like planes engines that don’t fly.
Another gin plz, thanks you.
How am I still here?
Battery dying; lucky you.
Hehe usb charger
Fills my phone with juice
Like the truck fueling the plane
It seems that we are airborne
Should be grateful, but
Too busy munching pretzels.