Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Like many bookish teenagers, I was an editor of my high school literary magazine. It was called Des Pensees and as the name suggests it was a formal, rather stuffy affair. A poem had to look and to act like a poem. Established forms, rhyme schemes, and traditional subjects like love, loss, and loneliness. I still have a copy, and it sits on my bookshelf next to my Black Mountain Reviews and Big Tables looking rather small and insignificant despite its large format. Periodically, I will thumb through it and my thoughts go not to my hometown in Pennsylvania but to Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the late 1950s, Ron Padgett, Joe Brainard and Dick Gallup, the members of what John Ashbery called the Tulsa wing of the New York School (Ted Berrigan was the fourth horseman of that group), started a little magazine while they were in high school called White Dove Review. It is one of the great little mags of the late 1950s / early 1960s and paved the way for the mimeo explosion that followed in New York City.
While Des Pensees was publishing the esteemed Jed Birmingham, including monumental works like “Dinner at the Savannah Restaurant,” the Tulsa Boys managed to get Kerouac and Paul Blackburn in their first issue. I am always encouraged by late bloomers like Bukowski and Burroughs. They give me hope that great things can blossom from a dry stone as I approach my forties, but I am fascinated (and ashamed) by those who display a fully developed aesthetic at an early age to say nothing of creative talent. How can a 19-year-old read so deeply? How can he respond in such a complex way to the works read? White Dove Review is truly an amazing magazine and an important document in the study and appreciation of the Second Generation New York School.
When I got to college, I dabbled in the literary magazine there, but never really got too involved. I read submissions for Queen’s Head and Artichoke, a mag named after a pub in London. As the name suggests, the work presented was again more traditional, more in line with Eliot and Auden than Pound and Williams. From what I could tell there was no evidence than anybody on the staff had read Ashbery or Olson. But then again that may be because I had no real clue about them and their work. I dabbled in The Maximus Poems, but I had to get away from college before any of it could seep in and make an impression. All my copies of Queen’s Head and Artichoke are lost to posterity, but I think that is a good thing.
I would much rather have copies of Censored Review. This was Berrigan and Padgett’s magazine from Padgett’s college days at Columbia University, home to Kerouac and Ginsberg. Censored Review evolved out of a brou-ha-ha over some Berrigan poems slated to be published in the University-sponsored magazine. The school wanted edits and cuts, and Padgett and Berrigan decided to publish the poems themselves. Censored Review sold well and got a bit of publicity from the New York media. The experience led to the establishment of C Press, a major institution for the New York underground.
The story involving Censored Review / C Press has repeated itself many times throughout the post-WWII era. Censorship and the University is a major theme in the development of the little mag during this period, and Burroughs is at the vortex of many of these storms of controversy. Chicago Review and Big Table are the primary examples of this. See my piece on Scotland and Burroughs for a few other examples. In fact the publication and dissemination of Naked Lunch cannot be separated from the University. If you look at the bibliography from 1957-1960, the tie to the academy and academics is strong. The British Journal of Addiction, Black Mountain Review, Chicago Review, Jabberwock, Big Table, and New Departures are all linked to the university. Take into consideration the goings on at Harvard in 1960 involving Timothy Leary and you can see that the university in the 1950s and early 1960s were not all fraternities, Big Ten football, cheerleaders and crew cuts. All were not silent in the Silent Decade. Rebellion was afoot, despite the Boards’ and Trustees’ best efforts to keep it quiet. The revolutions of the 1960s were nurtured in the ivory towers of the 1950s. Before the uprising at Columbia in 1969, there was the Censored Review in 1961 to say nothing of Kerouac and Ginsberg in the 1940s. The dispute over the Censored Review paved the way for “Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker!!”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Burroughs was not only read on college campuses; he could be found wandering the quads. Burroughs visited Cambridge and Oxford and maintained ties with Harvard through Timothy Leary. Ian Sommerville, the Cambridge student Burroughs met in 1959, partially explains the link to the British University system. Yet as I have mentioned before Burroughs was like a shark that needed constant motion and stimulation. Burroughs sensed the emerging youth culture of the 1950s and realized that the future of the counterculture resided on the college campus. To say that Burroughs latched on to the youth culture late in works like The Wild Boys (as I have suggested) is not fully the case. Burroughs was there in the Silent Decade. In fact Burroughs’ interest in the college scene goes back even further to Columbia University in the 1940s and the ex-pat GI Bill scene in Mexico City and Paris in the 1950s. The importance of the Ivy League in the establishment of the counterculture cannot be underestimated. The appearance of Burroughs in the literary mags of Harvard and Yale in the early 1960s is not the oddity they seem but shows the radical nature of the Ivy League and predicts the campus explosions of the late 1960s.
Searching on the internet, I recently got a hold of a complete run of New Departures (1959-1984), a magazine with a tie to Oxford. Full sets are available from time to time but I never thought to pull the trigger and get one. Early in the game I jumped at a run of Big Table. Ditto for the early Chicago Reviews and Sidewalk 2. Black Mountain Review was always a focus and a priority, but I must admit I disrespected New Departures. I think this was due to the fact that it was active well into the 1980s. I like the tenures of my mags to be short and sweet, to flare and pop like the roman candles that Kerouac used to describe the mad saints and fascinating people in On the Road. As I opened and thumbed through all 16 issues (in 10 volumes) I realized that was a mistake. It is a remarkable achievement.
I have written briefly about New Departures in my piece on Burroughs and Scotland. But I want to go into more detail here on the magazine and the scenes it represented. The magazine was founded in 1959 by two Oxford students, Michael Horovitz and Pete Brown (David Sladen is also listed as an editor). Both men were dissatisfied with the dried up and tired literary scene that hung over Great Britain at the time. Eliot and Auden were gods, and New Criticism ruled over the literary scene. In the 1950s, something exciting appeared to be brewing in England with the rise of the Angry Young Men lead by John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, and John Wain. In 1958/59, Max Gartenberg and Gene Feldman edited an anthology packaging the Beats with the Angry Young Men as two birds of a feather. The anthology was printed by Citadel Press and reprinted by Dell in a small paperback. This is an early Burroughs appearance. “My First Days on Junk,” a section of Junkie, is featured in the Beat section. The piece is attributed to “William Lee.” Kerouac and Ginsberg are included as are George Mandel, Chandler Brossard, and Anatole Broyard.
The British counterparts were more, well, British. Their concerns were with class and social caste. Things like boarding schools and titles shaped the authors, not reform schools and jail time. Not everybody saw the Angry Young Men as a source of change. A section of the Angries, including Kingsley Amis, seemed like the same old wine in a new, but classically shaped bottle. The Movement (as this section was known) became yet another literary group to react against.
Horovitz and Brown looked beyond the narrow British scene and turned to America and the Beats for inspiration. Allen Ginsberg was only too happy to spread the Beat word internationally. Ginsberg provided the young Oxford students with all the material they could handle and New Departures was on its way. In fact, in 1959 Horovitz went to the Beat Hotel in Paris and met Burroughs and Corso as he assembled the first issue. Later, Burroughs returned the favor and visited Horovitz in England. In In the Sixties, Barry Miles has a small chapter on New Departures. Artistically, Horovitz and Brown were not isolationists and railed against the Little Englandism that attached itself to the British literary establishment.
The first issue of New Departures is quite strong, a major statement of new writing beyond England’s shores. Burroughs’ “Coke Bugs” and “The Exterminator does a Good Job” are featured. These are sections of Naked Lunch that read like Junkie transformed by Burroughs’ newfound voice. Gone is the hardboiled monotone. Naked Lunch reads hip and hot, part jazz and part Joyce. Like in America, British readers got their first tantalizing taste of Burroughs through little magazines. Besides the British Journal of Addiction and the pulped pulp fiction of the Digit Junkie that were both limited in audience, New Departures was in a way Burroughs’ first British outlet. The magazine came out in the summer of 1959 just as Naked Lunch hit stands in Paris.
I would like to say that the first issue of New Departures was dominated by Burroughs and that Burroughs was the prime mover for the creation of the magazine but that was not the case. The other figure that looms over the first issue of New Departures is Samuel Beckett. Horovitz studied Beckett at Oxford and the Irish playwright provided a small piece for the magazine. Two small sections of Naked Lunch and Act Without Words 2 by Beckett. Burroughs at the front of the magazine and Beckett at the back. It is like they are paired up and compared in New Departures. Beckett and Burroughs met famously in Paris in 1959 just as Burroughs’ star was rising. Burroughs excitedly described the cut-up technique and Beckett was appalled.
I would argue that in the 1950s and 1960s, Beckett and Burroughs had a lot in common in how they were utilized and perceived by the alternative publishing industry. Beckett, like Burroughs, fanned the flames of creative inspiration and sparked the creation of little magazines and small publishing ventures. I have mentioned before the Merlin Group in Paris in the early 1950s that in large part formed in order to get Beckett back in print and in the public eye. Beckett was the first non-porn star of Olympia Press and he also was the main draw for Grove Press. Beckett and Sartre are the featured writers of the first issue of Evergreen Review which had an intellectual and European feel. The Beats come in after the existentialists and appear consistently in the magazine after the San Francisco Scene issue of 1957.
Like Beckett in the 1950s, Burroughs provided the face for Olympia Press and Grove Press in the early 1960s. Burroughs is featured on the cover of the 1960 Olympia Press catalog and is prominently mentioned and displayed in all advertising. Naked Lunch was reprinted three times in roughly five years by Olympia Press. Similarly at Grove, Burroughs and his censorship issues become the cause célÃ¨bre of publisher Barney Rosset.
From what I can gather Michael Horovitz was the driving force behind New Departures but the role of Pete Brown should not be understated. A poet from Liverpool, he shows the literary and artistic milieu out of which the Beatles arose. This scene has strong ties to the Beats and Ginsberg famously called Liverpool the “center of consciousness of the human universe.” The Liverpool poetry scene influences Beatlemania in Lennon and McCartney adding a poetic sensibility to rock and roll. The Beatles, or maybe more correctly Lennon and McCartney, were deeply interested in poetry and aspired to be poets. Throughout the 1960s, they hung out with poets, supported poets and bookshops (Zapple and Indica), and even dappled with poetry themselves (take Lennon’s In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works from mid-decade). In some odd way, Pete Brown and the Liverpool scene (poets like Roger McGough and Brian Patten, and even a painter like Adrian Henri) might help explain why Yoko Ono would appeal to the poetic side of Lennon although Lennon’s ties to Fluxus are probably more through Barry Miles and Indica Bookshop. Generally the Liverpool poets were not taken seriously by the British literary establishment or the British avant. They were seen as a British equivalent of Rod McKuen. No doubt they were popular, but they were viewed as more pop music than Pop Art. New Departures 13 published shortly after Lennon’s death provides a snapshot of all these scenes with its collection of Liverpool and British Revival poets (to be discussed later).
As the psychedelic era blossomed, Brown became a major part of the rock and roll scene. He was a lyricist for Cream and wrote with Jack Bruce some of the bands most endearing classics like “White Room,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” and “I Feel Free.” In songs like “White Room,” a surreal, poetic quality really shines through. I assumed that Brown wrote the lyrics for “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” but Martin Sharp co-wrote them with Bruce. Sharp was an Australian visual artist who played a big part in the London Pop and Psychedelic scene. Sharp did the artwork for the Wheels of Fire gatefold. To my mind, “Tales of Brave Ulysses” is one of the finest songs of the era and argues for the poetic nature of rock and roll.
New Departures also has strong ties to jazz. The fourth issue of New Departures deals with jazz and poetry and around this time Horovitz and Brown took their show on the road with their Live New Departures venues. These venues were important in extending the reach of the avant outward beyond London and in turn bringing new talent from the outskirts into the cultural vortex of the metropolis. Live New Departures foreshadowed the poetry reading at Albert Hall in 1965 that featured Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Alex Trocchi as well as Michael Horovitz. In my opinion, the 1965 reading was as instrumental in the creation of Swinging London and the Summer of Love as any Beatles album. The Live New Departures concept was revived in 1980 with the Poetry Olympics. These events continue to the present with the Jazz Poetry Super Jam 2007. The poetry and jazz issue also featured Brown and Horovitz’s “News About Time Editorial” from Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead. The mock newspaper format reminds me of Burroughs’ work in My Own Mag and elsewhere.
Throughout the sixties and on into the nineties, New Departures presented a potent sampling of Beat poetry that has been linked critically and creatively to another British poetry scene: the British Poetry Revival. The magazine served and continues to serve as a vital outlet for this alternative tradition in Great Britain for decades. The Revival possesses strong ties to the little mag / small press in Great Britain operating outside the established media outlets. New Departures was a mainstay of the British Little Press scene of the post-WWII era. Much critical attention has been given to the British little magazine of the Modernist Era. Think Blast or the Egoist. Increasingly, later little mags are getting their critical due. No doubt New Departures will be featured prominently.
The Beats’ tie to the later British Poetry Revival of the 1960s is much more instructive and interesting to me than the tenuous link to the Angry Young Men of a decade earlier. As I mentioned, “Angries,” such as John Osborne and Amis, shared the Beats’ dissatisfaction with family values and sexual mores (though mainly heterosexual), but the Beats’ radicalism extended beyond such content (by the way, the Beats opened up more taboo territory than the Angry Young Men) into literary form, production, and distribution. The Beats also championed the establishment of an alternative persona and lifestyle.
British Revival Poets, like Roy Fisher, Bob Cobbing, Jeff Nuttall, Lee Harwood, Allen Fisher and Tom Raworth, not to mention fellow travelers like Alexander Trocchi, shared the concerns of the Beats more fully. Horovitz edited the first anthology of the Revivalists: Children of Albion in 1969. In describing the Revival poets for a later anthology including their work, Eric Mottram writes, “They are poets who resist limpet-clinging to past metrics, self-satisfied irony, the self-regarding ego and its iambic thuds. They are committed to imaginative invention and to taking up the challenge of a wide range of Twentieth Century poetics in Europe and America. They stand, in their differing ways, for resistance to habitual responses, for explorations in language notation and rhythm, for discovery without safety-net for the poet or the reader.” The similarities to the practice of the Beats are clear.
Mottram, the first serious Burroughs scholar, was closely associated with the Revival. As editor of Poetry Review from 1971 to 1977, Mottram attempted to slip the British Revival Poets before a larger, more mainstream public. Poetry Review can be compared to Poetry in the United States. Mottram’s editorship in the 1970s reminds me of Henry Rago’s more liberal editorship of Poetry in the late 1960s as described by Ron Silliman in his blog. But Tom Clark’s work with Paris Review in the mid-1960s comes to mind and might be more appropriate. Clark really opened up the biggest little mag making it possible for Art of Fiction interviews with Burroughs (1965), Ginsberg (1966) and Kerouac (1967), in rapid succession. Clark also introduced into Paris Review a host of poets and writers following the alternative tradition of Williams, Stein, and Pound.
Like the Beats in the United States, the Revival poets created the atmosphere for a mimeo revolution in Great Britain. Writers / publishers, like Bob Cobbing and Jeff Nuttall, explored all aspects of publishing and distribution. Presses, like Migrant Press, Fulcrum Press and Goliard Press, published the Beats and mirrored American counterculture presses like Totem Press or Cornith Press. Nuttall’s My Own Mag had its counterparts with Fuck You Press and C Press. New Departures played its part in this British mimeo revolution.
British Revival writers like Nuttall extended Beat ideas into the international underground as represented by Project Sigma, the Situationists or the Provo Group. Jeff Nuttall linked the Beats to the international underground in his 1968 study Bomb Culture. The late issues of New Departures attempt to show that the rebellious spirit Nuttall described in his classic account was still alive in Great Britain and elsewhere in the eighties.
What surprised me about New Departures was its diversity in format. The first three issues are rather staid and standard little mags in the Evergreen Review or Transatlantic Review style. But later issues come in small chapbooks, spiral bound bindings or large magazine format. Nothing earth-shattering (in fact the late issues don’t differ much from Des Pensees of my high school years) but a nice variety over the years, particularly the little books by Michael and Frances Horovitz. The High Tower, Love Poems and A Celebration of and for Frances Horovitz in format and content are simple expressions of love and a love of poetry. It is such simple expressions coupled with a Do-it-yourself, independent spirit that powered the Summer of Love and Swinging London as much as the themes of sex, drugs and rock and roll endlessly recycled by Life, Time, and Newsweek. Michael Horovitz through his writing and performances tries to keep those sentiments alive in the present.