Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
“Imagine that you have before you a flagon of wine. You may choose your own favorite vintage for this imaginary demonstration, so that it be a deep shimmering crimson in color. You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine. For if you have no feelings about wine one way or the other, you will want the sensation of drinking the stuff out of a vessel that may have cost thousands of pounds; but if you are a member of that vanishing tribe, the amateurs of fine vintages, you will choose the crystal, because everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than to hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.
Bear with me in this long-winded and fragrant metaphor; for you will find that almost all the virtues of the perfect wine-glass have a parallel in typography.”
— Beatrice Warde, “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible”
In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy and his father court death and disaster in pursuit of the Holy Grail. At the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, with his father’s life hanging in the balance, Jones stands before a collection of chalices and goblets, one of which is the Grail. The corrupt Dr. Elsa Schneider, blinded by the grandeur and glory of her vision of the Son of God, chooses the most ostentatious of cups. Walter Donovan drinks deeply and crumbles into dust. “He chose poorly.” Jones knows better. Remembering that our Lord and Savior was a mere carpenter, Professor Jones chooses the humblest of cups. This holy water heals the gaping gunshot wound of his father, saving his life. Sometimes the greatest treasure is the simplest of objects. The last Knight blesses Indy’s decision: “You have chosen . . . wisely.”
Thus was my dilemma upon receiving Andrew Sclanders’ latest BeatBooks catalog: Number 59. For Burroughs fans there was a copy of Black Mountain Review #7 or the English Bookshop pressing of Call Me Burroughs. Copy after copy of drug pulps flew from the catalog. Last time I checked the Ace Junkie remains available. In a sense, the Ace Junkie is yet another jeweled goblet, a false treasure. It is expensive at 425 pounds, and with over 100,000 copies printed, most treasure seekers have already snatched up their copies.
I found my Grail in the “Beats, Outsiders, and Other Adventures in Poetry” Section. It was the humblest of entries: “Carrington, Harold. Drive Suite. London: Paul Breman, 1972. First edition, 8vo. Wrps., 12pp. Wrappers slightly rubbed. Very Good. 15 Pounds.” Carrington was born in Atlantic City in 1938. From the age of 16, he served time in various jails and institutions. While in jail, he picked up the writer’s bug to go along with his drug and alcohol habit. On July 27, 1964, Carrington was released from prison. He died three days later in the city of his birth of a drug overdose.
Carrington may be familiar to Burroughs fans. There is a fragile link between the two writers. First, both are junkie-writers. Unfortunately, Carrington ended up in the credit column of the junkie-writer ledger. The other link is Floating Bear No. 9. Burroughs’ Roosevelt After Inauguration appears in this issue along with LeRoi Jones‘ The System of Dante’s Hell. The issue was mailed to Carrington in Rahway Prison in New Jersey in 1961. Carrington’s copy was seized by prison censors, who objected to Burroughs’ pornographic satire and Jones’ homosexual subject matter. The seizure led to obscenity charges against Jones and Diane DiPrima. Ultimately, the charges were dropped. DiPrima and Jones proclaimed their victory in Issue 20 of Floating Bear. I bought the book on the basis of the link to Floating Bear and Burroughs — an interesting piece of the Floating Bear puzzle that fills in the history of that magazine and, in particular, the controversial ninth issue.
Before seeing the book in the BeatBooks catalog, I was completely unaware that anything of Carrington’s was actually published. Yet upon receiving the slim volume, it was immediately familiar. This should have been obvious from the title. Drive Suite is also the title of a Ray Bremser poem, published as Nova Broadcast No. 1 by Jan Herman. A quick look at the two publications reveals that they are versions of the same poem. The first three sections are, with slight variations, identical. The Nova Broadcast edition contains a fourth section entitled “Luyah, the Glorious Step.”
What the hell is going on? A little digging reveals an interesting story. Turns out that Bremser, another poet who struggled with his addictions, served time with Carrington at Rahway Prison. Bremser introduced Carrington to literary connections in New York and elsewhere, such as Walter Lowenfels. Diane DiPrima became a correspondent of Carrington’s as well, which led no doubt to the mailing of Floating Bear. Lowenfels and DiPrima maintained their correspondence with Carrington, so some of his writing and work survived after his sudden and unexpected death. Carrington’s uncle also held on to a small archive. Going through Carrington’s papers, Breman found a draft of Drive Suite written largely in Carrington’s hand. Breman assumed the poem was Carrington’s, which it is not. The poem was chosen by Breman for publication due to its “sheer virtuosity” and for the connection to jazz musician Cecil Taylor, a member of the circle of poets, artists and musicians that gathered around Jones, Hettie Cohen, and Yugen. Drive Suite eventually became Number 14 in Breman’s important Heritage Series of African-American poets. Breman’s memoir on The Heritage Series has some useful information on Carrington and this publishing snafu.
Quite possibly, Carrington copied the poem in order to comment on it or simply to preserve a poem he admired. It could be that there is a T.S Eliot / Ezra Pound dynamic going on with Drive Suite, with Carrington hovering behind Bremser’s finished and published poem. Doubtful. Lowenfels and others have confirmed the authorship as Bremser’s and eventually Breman acknowledged his error and pulled the Heritage publication of Drive Suite. What is strange is that the Nova Broadcast edition of Bremser’s poem was in print from 1968. An earlier version of first section of the poem was published in Stanley Fisher’s Beat Coast East anthology as far back as 1960. The poem was clearly in circulation for years. Given the Bremser / Carrington friendship, it is doubly odd that nobody made the connection earlier.
So we are left with a situation in which the only published book of poems by Harold Carrington contains in its entirety a poem that is not by Carrington. Let me stress that this was unintentional and merely an editing mistake by Breman, yet it suggests another dimension of writing and criminality in relation to Carrington besides the obvious ones of junkie / prisoner / poet and obscenity trials. The serious crimes in terms of writing are that of plagiarism and copyright violation. Carrington the poet has been falsely incarcerated in Bremser’s text. Interestingly, Bremser could be accused of identity theft. Jones / Baraka wrote to Breman about the affair, “Why Bremser now wants to take on the personae [sic] of a dead black poet I can only guess at.” The reasons are obvious in that the “dead black” Carrington is perceived by Bremser as being more authentic, more real, and closer to the Truth (pure experience and pure speech). This is the theme of the White Negro yet again, with Bremser, along with the other white Beats, appropriating black culture and experience to enrich what they viewed as an impoverished, outmoded, and tired dominant tradition.
The back blurb on the Heritage Series volume mentions other poems and projects relating to Carrington, including a “novel which Walt Sheppard planned to publish as a supplement to his Nickel Review.” In addition, Eugene Redmond is mentioned as “establishing the corpus of Carrington’s scattered work.” I do not think anything came of these projects. From what I can tell, Aldon Lynn Nielsen has singlehandedly kept the memory of Carrington alive. Nielsen collected a handful of poems in Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans. In 2006, Nielsen posted three entries on his Heat String Theory blog relating to Carrington, which include some poems and letters. The letters, particularly a long one to Lowenfels, give wonderful insights into Carrington’s concerns as a poet. For those looking to drink deeply of the work of “Wine” Carrington, there looks to be precious little in print or online to satisfy your thirst. To a certain extent, Drive Suite, as published by The Heritage Series, is a false grail. Like Dr. Schneider, Paul Breman was blinded by “sheer virtuosity” and chose poorly. As evidenced by the work uncovered by Nielsen, Carrington’s output is of a humbler nature. Yet Drive Suite, false as it is, reveals a hidden truth about the crimes of writing and provides a fitting monument to a man and poet whose (to paraphrase Eric Burdon and the Animals) intentions were good but was destined to be misunderstood.