Thursday, April 16, 2015

National Poetry Month—Female Beats

Beat Generation women in the popular imagination.

When we think of the Beats we think of dark, smoky basement-like rooms, cool jazz and bongos, half-melted candles jammed into Chianti bottles on haphazard tables.   And we think of men.  The Beats seemed to reek of testosterone and animated by a kind of prowling lust, even those like Ginsberg and Corso who swung in different directions.  And the chicks, man, were thrill seeking accessories with tight sweaters and open legs.  Didn’t they make movies about that?
Of course, we would be wrong.  The women were always there and if the bad boys acted up or foolish were ready to claim their own piece of the rebellion.  Here is a sample of three of them.  You won’t soon forget them.

Denise Levertov is the best known, but some might question her inclusion.  She was, after all, half a generation older than most of the tom cats and kittens and came from a background vastly different than the working class roots of many of the Beats.
Levertov’s background was indeed unique.  Born on October 23, 1923 in Ilford, Essex, England, her father Paul Philip Levertov was a scholarly and multi-lingual Russian born Hassidic Jew who had converted to Christianity as a student in Germany.  He came to Britton where he became and Anglican priest and was serving a parish throughout her childhood.  Her mother was an equally cultured Welch woman, Beatrice Adelaide Spooner-Jones. 
Neither Levertov nor her older sister Olga was sent to school.  Instead they had an unusual, but enriching, education in a home filled with books.  Her mother read aloud to the girls from the classics of 19th Century literature—Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy among many others.  Her father gave gentle instruction in religion and was an example spending hours every day at his desk prolifically writing in multiple languages.  By age five Levertov had determined to be a writer.  Nothing ever shook her from this determination.
She wrote poetry throughout her childhood becoming more skilled and confident.  She compared herself the great writers who inspired her and when she thought she was ready, at the ripe age of 12, she boldly wrote directly to the most important poet in England, T.S. Elliot, sending him a selection of her work.  He responded with a detailed, two page type written letter of encouragement and “very good advice.”  Elliot would only be the first of an array of major writers who noticed, encouraged, and mentored the young writer.
In 1940 at age 17 she had her fist poem published in Poetry Quarterly.  It was so good that it attracted the attention on both sides of the Atlantic.  Keneth Rexroth, who would become a major supporter in the United States, recalled that, “In no time at all Herbert Read, Tambimutti, Charles Wrey Gardiner, and incidentally myself, were all in excited correspondence about her. She was the baby of the new Romanticism. Her poetry had about it a wistful Schwarmerei unlike anything in English except perhaps Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach…”
Like many young Britons, Levertov’s life was disrupted by World War II.  Her single minded devotion to literature had to be set aside.  She took a course in nursing, endured the Blitz, served in London hospitals tending the war wounded, and lived through the V-1 and V-2 attacks late in the war.  In a sense this made her as much a combat veteran as any infantryman.  She learned quickly there was behind the lines in modern, industrial war.
Levertov continued to write in her scant spare time during the war and immediately after, in 1946, published her first collection, The Double Image.  The book only lightly touched directly on the war, the experience of which she was still processing.  It did, however, often deal with finding transcendence in death, a familiar neo-romantic theme.  Her style was still formal and her approach still sometimes ornate reflecting the influences of her childhood.  Still, the book attracted attention and some later critics read a glimmer of her later militant pacifism.
In 1947 Levertov married American writer Mitchell Goodman and a year later emigrated with him to the U.S.  They moved to New York, emerging after the war as a new international cultural capital surpassing war battered Paris, Vienna, and London.  The couple summered in Maine where Levertov immersed herself in American influences she had not known in Britain—the Transcendentalists, Dickerson, and Whitman.  Through her husband she was introduced to Robert Creeley and members of the seminal Black Mountain poets group who were experimenting with new forms to project through content rather than through strict meter or form.
She also acquired a new mentor, William Carlos Williams, like Rexroth a star of an earlier generation of avant garde poets.  From him she learned direct, simple language and an ability to closely observe and draw from seemingly mundane experiences.  Levertov saw her first American publication in Origin, a magazine associated with the Black Mountain group and published by Cid Corman.  Later several of her poems appeared in the Black Mountain Review. 
Despite the association and influences, Levertov always resisted being labeled as a member of any group or movement, the Black Mountain poets or the Beats to whom she would soon be important and influential.  Those godfathers, Rexroth and Williams as well as Robert Creeley, became her bridge to the emerging Beats.
Her first American collection, Here and Now was published in 1956 and reflected her ongoing transformation as a poet.  It was her collection, With Eyes in the Back of Our Heads published in 1959 that Levertov found her fully mature voice.  And a very American voice it was.  Neither critics nor the public could find much connection to an English identity in her work.  She had become naturalized in 1958.
With the coming of the ‘60’s Levertov became much more political.  She was an early voice of second wave feminism, moved by the civil rights movement, and outraged by the Vietnam War.  In fact outrage fueled much of her work through the next two decades.  Those old war experiences finally came to the fore spurring a total rejection of American militarism that continued right up through the Gulf War.
Levertov came to a position to influence a generation of young poets as Rexroth and Williams had influenced her as poetry editor of The Nation through much of the ‘60’s and again as poetry editor of Mother Jones in the mid-‘70’s.  Her 1965 volume The Sorrow Dance exemplified her rage and sorrow in this period.
She would go on to publish 20 more volumes of poetry and four collections of prose.  Her influence, particularly on the next generation of feminist writers was huge.  Levertov even finally became engaged with academia despite her total lack of formal education when she taught at Stanford from 1982 to 1994.
She made Seattle her home for the last ten years of her life where she continued to write until the end and edit a compilation of her work.  Her last collections were more personal and almost mystical including The Life around Us: Selected Poems on Nature and The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes  both published in 1997.
Levertov died of lymphoma on December 20, 1997 at the age of 74.  Her long-time publisher New Directions released the poems she was working on as she faced death as This Great Unknowing: Last Poems in 1999.
With Eyes in the Back of Our Heads
With eyes at the back of our heads
we see a mountain
not obstructed with woods but laced
here and there with feathery groves.
The doors before us a facade
that perhaps has no house in back of it
are too narrow, and one is set high
with no doorsill. The architect sees
the imperfect proposition and
turns eagerly to the knitter.
Set it to rights!
The knitter begins to knit.
For we want
to enter the house, if there is a house,
to pass through the doors at least
into whatever lies beyond them,
we want to enter the arms
of the knitted garment. As one
is re-formed, so the other,
in proportion.
When the doors widen
when the sleeves admit us
the way to the mountain will clear,
the mountain we see with
eyes at the back of our heads, mountain
green, mountain
cut of limestone, echoing
with hidden rivers, mountain
of short grass and subtle shadow.

—Denise Levertov

Goodbye to Tolerance

Genial poets, pink-faced
earnest wits—
you have given the world
some choice morsels,
gobbets of language presented
as one presents T-bone steak

and Cherries Jubilee.
Goodbye, goodbye,
I don’t care
if I never taste your fine food again,
neutral fellows, seers of every side.
Tolerance, what crimes
are committed in your name.

And you, good women, bakers of nicest bread,
blood donors. Your crumbs
choke me, I would not want
a drop of your blood in me, it is pumped
by weak hearts, perfect pulses that never
falter: irresponsive
to nightmare reality.

It is my brothers, my sisters,
whose blood spurts out and stops
because you choose to believe it is not your business.

Goodbye, goodbye,
your poems
shut their little mouths,
your loaves grow moldy,
a gulf has split
the ground between us,
and you won’t wave, you’re looking
another way.
We shan’t meet again—
unless you leap it, leaving
behind you the cherished
worms of your dispassion,
your pallid ironies,
your jovial, murderous,
wry-humored balanced judgment,
leap over, un-
balanced? ... then
how our fanatic tears
would flow and mingle
for joy ...

—Denise Levertov


Unlike Levertov, Diane di Prima was smack dab in the middle of the demographic for the Beat Generation.  She was born in New York City on August 6, 1934.  She was a second generation Italian with a radical background.  Her maternal grandfather, Domenico Mallozzi, was an anarchist, and associate of Carlo Tresca and Emma Goldman. Like Levertov, she took to writing poetry as a child and contacted famous poets, in her case swapping correspondence with Ezra Pound and Kenneth Patchen.
From a working class background she shone enough academically to gain entrance to Hunter College High School and Swarthmore College.  However after her second year at college she dropped out for the lure of la vie Bohème in Greenwich Village.  She was soon running with a fast crowd that included Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, and Audre Lorde. 
Her first book of poetry, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, was published in 1958 by LeRoi and Hettie Jones’s Totem Press.  Her poetry was raw, direct, experiential and continually pushed the boundaries of permissible language and contained frank sexual themes.  In 1961 she joined LeRoi Jones in launching The Floating Bear, a highly radical literary journal which resulted in her arrest on Federal mail obscenity charges.  She would later be arrested for obscenity on stage in New York while appearing with the New York Poets Theatre which she co-founded.  Notoriety surrounding these incidents caused her to be hounded by police across the country when she toured on readings.  She had good claim to be the most censored woman in America.  She also founded The Poets Press which issued not only her work but controversial material from other poets.
Despite a sexually adventurous life style di Prima was determined to experience everything, including motherhood.  She felt that keenly after having an abortion at the insistence of Jones who was still married Hettie but had a roving eye for White women.  She had two children as a single woman and married twice to Alan Marlowe from1962 to ‘69 with whom she had two more children and Grant Fisher from 1972 to ‘75, then had one more child.
Di Prima became interested in spiritual matters in the mid-sixties and became a resident of Timothy Leary’s psychedelic intentional community at Millbrook, New York in 1966.  She published early editions of Leary’s  Psychodelic Prayers.
When she moved to California in the late ‘60’s, di Prima became a bridge between the Beats and the emerging Hippie movement.  She embraced Buddhism and a variety of eastern spiritual practices.  She resided for a while in Topanga Canyon, ground zero for a California music and arts scene.  While there in 1965 she published her fictionalized and highly erotic account of her experience in the Beat movement, Memoirs of a Beatnik.
From 1974 to 1997, di Prima taught Poetry at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, sharing the program with fellow Beats Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Gregory Corso. 
After making San Francisco her base di Pima was associated with the Diggers and with the spiritual seekers of the Institute of Magical and Healing Arts which she co-founded. What many consider her master work, the long poem Loba, in 1978, with an enlarged edition in 1998. Subsequently her selected poems, Pieces of a Song, was published in 1990 and a real memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, in 2001.
In recent years she has collaborated in film making, including an acclaimed documentary The Poetry Deal: a film with Diane di Prima.  She has also taken up the visual arts of collage, photography, and water color painting.  She was named San Francisco Poet Laureate in 2009 and has been honored with the National Poetry Association’s Lifetime Service Award and the Fred Cody Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Now in her eighties, di Prima remains a vibrant part of the San Francisco cultural scene.  She is reportedly working on an expanded edition of her noted 1971 collection Revolutionary Letters with at least twenty new pieces.  The book was originally published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Light Books.
The Window

you are my bread
and the hairline noise
of my bones
you are almost
the sea
you are not stone
or molten sound
I think
you have no hands
this kind of bird flies backwards
and this love
breaks on a windowpane
where no light talks
this is not the time
for crossing tongues
(the sand here
never shifts)
I think
turned you with his toe
and you will
and shine
unspent and underground

—Diane di Prima

Hettie Cohen on the cusp of becoming Hettie Jones.

Hettie Jones was born in Brooklyn in 1934 as Hettie Cohen, a nice Jewish girl with deep intellectual curiosity.  She went south to Virginia to get attend Mary Washington College before going on to earn a BA in Drama from the University of Virginia.  Back in New York she took graduate courses at Columbia University and barely supported herself with crummy clerical jobs.  She also stumbled into the emerging Beat culture of the Village.
She charmingly told the story in her widely admired memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, In March of 1957 she was working part time in the scruffy offices of the not very profitable Record Changer magazine.  Officially she was the subscription manager.  Unofficially she was pretty much the whole staff except for the editor/publisher.  He was out one day and she was idling away time reading Kafka’s Amerika and waiting to interview an applicant for one of the few other jobs—shipping clerk.  In walked a young Black man who was excited to see what she was reading,
He was small and wiry, and a widow’s peak that sharpened his close-cut hair, and a mustache and goatee to match.  Yet the rakishness of all these triangles was set back, made reticent, by a button-down shirt and Clark’s shoes.  A Brooks Brothers look.  I sat him down and we started to talk.  He was smart, and very direct, and for emphasis stabbed the air with this third—not index—finger, an affectation to notice, of course.  But his movements were easy, those of a man at home not only in skin but in muscle and bone.  And he led with his head.  What had started with Kafka just went on going.
Within weeks Hettie Cohen was living with LeRoi Jones and soon married him when she became pregnant. Jones, an intense poet and aspiring playwright, was already a fixture in the Village scene.  The relationship alienated her from her family and “made me outcast by my tribe.”  He introduced Hettie to his wide range of friends.  She met Alan Ginsburg when Jones sent her across town to teach the very secular Jew how to sing the Kadish as he prepared his famous poem.
With a child on the way and little money the couple could not afford to stay in the Village proper which even then was gentrifying in an artsy way. They crossed an invisible line into the very unfashionable, mostly Italian, Lower East Side, where they lived in a series of decrepit apartments eventually settling in rooms cobbled together to make an apartment on the top floor of an old rooming house on Cooper Square.  They were extremely poor, with Hettie brining in most of the income from her new clerical job at Partisan Review while LeRoi tried to establish himself.  Their neighbors, mainly older Italians, resented the influx of Bohemians, which they knew would eventually raise rents, and especially interracial couples.  Both of them were assaulted on the street.  They had two daughters, Kellie and Lisa Jones.
Despite their struggles the couple established and co-edited the influential literary magazine, Yugen. She did most of the work.  He got most of the credit.  Their magazine not only featured their own poetry, but also works by Levertov, Burroughs, Kerouac, Philip Whalen, and others.  She also launched a small publishing company Totem Press, which published poets such as Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Frank O’Hara, Edward Dorn, and Gary Snyder.  She thus became a key, and much beloved, figure in the Beat scene.
Her marriage was under stress with LeRoi’s roaming eye.  He took up with di Palma and had her move into an apartment next door then he collaborated with di Palma on their own magazine pretty much abandoning Yugen and dooming it.  After LeRoi had success with his play The Dutchman and he began to emerge as a Black Nationalist political figure, the marriage fell apart entirely ending in divorce in 1966.  Jones reinvented himself as Amiri Baraka and moved back to New Jersey as a Black Revolutionary.        
Hettie had to carry on    as a single mother.  In 1974 when her daughters were old enough, she published Big Star Fallin’ Mama: Five Women in Black Music followed by several books for children.    The same year she began touring reading her poetry and telling stories of the Beats.  She continues to do that to this day to delighted and charmed audiences.
She is was involved with PEN American Center’s Prison Writing committee and from 1981 to writing workshop at the New York State Correctional Facility for Women at Bedford Hills. She currently is on the Pen Advisory Board. 
Jones lives in New York City, where she writes and teaches at the New School
Hard Drive
Saturday the stuffed bears were up again
over the Major Deegan
dancing in plastic along the bridge rail
under a sky half misty, half blue
and there were white clouds
blowing in from the west

which would have been enough
for one used to pleasure
in small doses

but then later, at sunset,
driving north along the Saw Mill
in a high wind, with clouds big and drifting
above the road like animals
proud of their pink underbellies,
in a moment of intense light
I saw an Edward Hopper House,
at once so exquisitely light and dark
that I cried, all the way up Route 22
those uncontrollable tears
“as though the body were crying”

and so young women
here’s the dilemma

itself the solution

I have always been at the same time
woman enough to be moved to tears
and man enough
to drive my car in any direction

—Hettie Jones

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