The Poetry of William S. Burroughs

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An Ongoing Attempt to Collect the Poetry of William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs is generally considered a novelist. To make the case that he was also a poet is neither revisionist nor perverse but absurd. After all, Burroughs paid about as much obeisance to genre or medium as he did to the law. His work consistently ignored the traditional boundaries between forms of creative production — to the point where, if you were really to collect Burroughs’ “poetry,” you would be hard-pressed to explain why you might leave out Naked Lunch. It may well be the most “poetic” text he ever wrote.

And what of the cut-up? Is it poetry, prose, or something else altogether? Oliver Harris has broached the question in his essay “‘Burroughs Is a Poet Too, Really’: The Poetics of Minutes to Go.” Harris writes that, in Minutes to Go, poetry “is not understood in terms of words on the page but as the ‘place’ reached by a particular use of chance operations on pre-existing words.” It is a method “to be grasped by doing,” not a “content to be understood by interpretation.” This insightful analysis could serve as an introduction to this somewhat quixotic attempt to collect the poetry of William Burroughs, and Oliver Harris has very graciously allowed RealityStudio to republish it.

Poems by William S. Burroughs

Published by RealityStudio on 4 August 2010.

9 thoughts on “The Poetry of William S. Burroughs

  1. well, i’ve read most it now

    an impressive peioce of work – i admit i tend to think only of the cut-ups as ‘the 3 cut-up novels’ (and the shorter stories/chapters/pieces) – is ‘Minutes To Go’ still commercially avaialable? If not, that may be one barrier to its being widely considered by scholars (and us readers!). For instance, i have just started reading properly ‘Ticket’ purely because it has been released in a new edition which i picked up in a high street music shop!

    i’m realyl excited by the new attention being given to cut-ups, on this site and in the promised forthcoming book ‘Shift Linguals’ – it has really energised my interest in writing again.

  2. Quite similar to Jackson Pollack’s paintings. The action. The creative mental energy expended. Likewise, Bob Dylan utilized cerebral imagery shattered and juxtaposed for prose Tarantula indicating a strong Burroughs’ influence. Just look at Burroughs’ titles here and one’s Dylan chose for his poems in Tarantula. It’s all concrete poetry of rationalism crumbled and reassembled.

  3. Thanks mucho for collecting and sharing some of Burroughs cut-up woks here. After reading Mr. Harris paper it remains clear that there are some writers who actually blur the generic border between poetry and prose, form and content no longer a definitive feat.

    Yet, for all of Mr. Harris claims about the pervasive failures of criticism, he’s approach to cut-ups is, it seems to me, quite theoretical. For by focusing on the “resemblance” between the methods used to create a cut up and the cut-ups themselves, he is still reading cut-ups for what they might reveal about the creative process followed by Burroughs and not for what they are or might be according to the context hey are read.

    Take just one example:

    ‘Cancer tests… brown blood.. live babies.. proof of virus. vacine? Bio-control the London conference.. it was out sheep cattle and animals have wild system…. Blood time brown blood’.

    “You could say that further interpretation is simply not possible; but the cumulative effect of such texts, enhanced by repetition of words and phrases across several of them, is still clear enough; to invite us to infer a calculated relation between language and the genetic code, twin deterministic systems subject here to systematic scrambling by the use of chance procedures.”

    Mr. Harris fills in the gaps of this cut-up with a definitively interesting interpretation (however clear he insists this cut-up is) that you could say was directly borrowed from Noam Chomsky’s highly questionable and ahistoric approach to language acquisition and the predetermination of grammar. In any case, I can’t deny that the attempt of Mr. Harris to find out how Burroughs wrote cut ups or Naked Lunch is really enjoyable. It tells a lo of his faith and hope that humans can actually control and give sense to chaos. I’d say, however, that if control played a central role in the creative processes of Burroughs it is only because it was the means to attain an all together different “purpose”: to escape control. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. For like all “brujos” know, the machine can only be fought with the machine: “the way in is the way out”.

  4. Didn’t William have a column in a Los Angles newspaper called:
    Sketches with lots of dots/periods between each phrase ???

    I used to cut them out of the newspaper daily and saved them… I moved so many times over the years, they got lost……….

    Where can I see and read them again………

  5. I think you are remembering “Scrambles” which was a one-time piece for the International Times in July 17, 1970, which was then re-printed in the LA Free Press as “This Man Has Been Scrambled” on Aug. 21, 1970. You might have thought that Burroughs had a regular column because he appeared in the LA Free Press a handful of times in 1970 with pieces that were reprinted and recycled throughout the underground newspaper press circuit.

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