DIY Beat Criticism


Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

It is an unseasonably warm night in the alley where the beers are cold and I am a little hot under my admittedly white collar. “I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore!” It is time for a revolution against the Beat Criticism Network. I recently bought my way into a university library and I have been checking out some Beat Criticism I missed in the last decade. For example, The Transnational Beat Generation edited by Nancy M. Grace and Jennie Skerl (2012); The Cubalogues by Todd F. Tietchen (2010); Modern American Counter Writing: Beats, Outsiders, Ethnics by A. Robert Lee (2010); Capturing the Beat Moment: Cultural Politics and the Poetics of Presence by Erik Mortenson (2010); Reconstructing the Beats edited by Jennie Skerl (2004); The Beat Generation: Critical Essays edited by Kostas Myrsiades (2002). In years past, I would have bought all these books but in this down economy, with the Beat Industry seemingly chugging right along, I must admit that I simply cannot keep up. The list above is but a small fraction of the flood of the Beat material that is coming out of the sausage grinder. After gorging myself, I must say that it was a lot of empty calories. I have not been missing much. I have to ask yet again: When will the Beat Generation generate the criticism it deserves?

The Transnational Beat GenerationLet’s take The Transnational Beat Generation, the most recent and thus supposedly up-to-the-minute piece of Beat Criticism. This collection seems quite out of touch with the current state of affairs. How about the fact that the whole Transnational Beat Generation opus is hypocritical at its core? It supposedly takes a stand against consumerism and capitalism while firmly residing within an institutional structure and publishing culture that may be as corrupt and exploitative as any Fortune 100 corporation. Is not the higher education system part of the problem of capitalism, particularly global corporate capitalism? Did not the youth movement of the 1960s rise up against this very same university system as toadies of the military-industrial complex and as a farm system for international conglomerates? Surely this is old news.

So how can the participants in this collection rail so “eloquently” against the capitalist system, when they are themselves imprisoned within just another bureaucratic system that serves a larger global market? Furthermore, is not the hot topic in terms of higher education the fact that the university system is intellectually and economically bankrupting its students? Surely the essays collected in The Transnational Beat Generation tell only one self-congratulating narrative. The contradictions and complexities of what is basically a corporate higher education system cannot be simply explained away or ignored; they should be addressed with an entire essay in the collection. Maybe an essay that examines the student revolt in England in 2011 against the student revolts of the 1960s. Or the Beat influence on the student revolt of 1968, focusing on France and Columbia University, and the Beat reaction to that revolt? That would fit in the transnational structure of the collection. In any case, Beat critics should address a university labor pool and bureaucracy within an information economy against the corporate elites of the Silent Decade. Why listen to these essayists preach their version of the gospel to us? We have nothing to lose but our tenure track. (Then again, those positions are becoming as common as a pension plan from a major global corporation. Seriously, stones and glass houses apply here.)

Let’s pass over these basic contradictions to take a closer look at the actual work accomplished in these Beat Criticism collections. Verdict: Enough of this shit. I get it; Beat Studies is not respected in the academy. But enough of a Beat Criticism that has to present a grey flannel suit of accepted academic jargons and buzzwords. This is CV padding and the donning of the university tie required for interviews with tenure boards and trustees. It is time to let one’s hair down. When will we get a Beat Criticism of “wild form” and “spontaneous prose” instead of clumsy parroting of Deleuze and Guattari? When will we get archival research from primary sources instead of worn-out cliches pulled from secondary sources, reprints, and anthologies? For example, can we really talk about William Burroughs’ cut-ups with any type of depth or authority by just referring to the Grove trilogy?

Let’s get specific. How about Nancy Grace’s article in The Transnational Beat Generation on fairy tales? “The genesis of this essay was a paper written by Kat Brausch in my ‘Literature of the Beat Generation’ course at The College of Wooster in fall 2006. Zane Shetler, a 2009 graduate of The College of Wooster, directed me to The Black Rider, I am grateful for their vision.” Given all the errors involving proper nouns in Grace’s essay (“Joan Volmer,” “Hans Christian Anderson” [numerous times], “Tolkein,” “J R Tolkien,” is it Zipe or Zipes [it shifts], “Bryon Gysin”) coupled with the incredibly convoluted and confused nature of the essay, I want to believe she outsourced it in some manner. This sentence of acknowledgement hints at the hypocrisy of The Transnational Beat Generation. The indentured servitude that supports the university system is no secret. Working without benefits and on part-time contracts (while teaching a full schedule) are standard operating procedure for young academics. The quality of the work in this essay is embarrassing for someone of the stature of Grace. The importance of her work in Beat Criticism cannot be underestimated; she is a giant in the industry (yes, industry), but these basic errors imply a carelessness about the presentation of her published work. Maybe she is overworked with all her bureaucratic obligations and does not have time for such editorial niceties? Her course materials for English 230, available on the Internet, suggest as much. What is going on with the apostrophes and punctuation in this line:

(e.g., Holmes’ Go, Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Kerouac’ On the Road, Burrough’s Naked Lunch, di Prima’s Dinners and Nightmares, ruth weiss’ Desert Journal)

This is just plain sloppy. Several essays in The Transnational Beat Generation have such errors involving proper names. This reveals the breakdown of basic editing in the academic publishing industry.

I am afraid Grace’s essay is infused with an elitist attitude, despite being “merely” Beat Criticism. In reading The Black Rider, Grace claims special insight. She chastises “mass-culture reviews” of The Black Rider and states “[a] few of these even make the erroneous claim that Burroughs chose the free shooter plot because it replicated his killing of his common-law wife, Joan Volmer Adams thus allowing him to engage in his own media fantasy of justifying the killing as the reason why he became a writer.” First of all, an egregious misspelling here, and these things matter. I wonder what Grace would make of such a slip from another critic, editor or Beat writer; such as, let’s say Ed Sanders, who gave a forum to another tragic Beat casualty, Elise Cowen — posthumously it should be noted — by rescuing her poems from destruction within the pages of Fuck You, a magazine of the arts, all the while silencing that voice to some extent by misspelling her last name and thus perversely aiding the Cowen family in protecting their good name from being tainted by an “embarrassment” like Elise.

But I digress. “Erroneous claim.” Really? Even if Burroughs did not choose the free shooter plot, the plot chose him or was chosen for him precisely because of just such a replication. Burroughs’ entire literary career made hay of just such coincidences, chance encounters, and juxtapositions. Not to mention that the introduction to Queer is not just a “media fantasy” but is Burroughs’ most notorious fairy tale. Why not write about that? And if Burroughs did not willingly engage with the associations to the shooting of Joan, why this line: “He who hang a happy ending on story about death, shall likewise take a hangman’s rope.” This references Hemingway’s suicide and immediately suggests the Burroughsian fairy tale about the shooting of Joan. It is questionable that this has to do with “Burroughs’ spectacle representation” in the manner Grace suggests. Burroughs is guilty here and he clearly took the hangman’s rope: he willingly sold out to the mass media and the market. Could not the line also refer to Burroughs’ representation of himself as a celebrity writer of Queer, which was part of a mega book deal with a major publisher? Burroughs played an active role in his “spectacle representation,” thus being guilty of threating his “autonomy of the individual” by allowing his work to be mediated by a large publishing company. Grace glosses over this, as well as over Burroughs’ Nike ad, his painting career, the Naked Lunch movie, as well as the entire celebrity persona he cultivated and chose, just as Burroughs made the choice to shoot his wife. Ugly Spirit (Fairy Tale) aside.

That said, Beat Criticism can be obsessively researched and down and dirty. The work of Oliver Harris and Daniel Kane are two examples. I was thrilled to read The Cubalogues: Beat Writers in Revolutionary Cuba by Todd Tietchen. This is the concept of the transnational borne aloft and flying free of the usual academic shackles. This is because Tietchen does not slather spicy theory all over everything like the hot pepper relish on a tasteless Subway sandwich. Instead, like Kane and Harris, he rolls up his sleeves and gets busy uncovering some forgotten sources and, gasp, maybe even slumming it by doing some blue-collar work in the archives. The Cubalogues is a reality sandwich wrapped in the pages of little magazines, which Tietchen has actually read and researched.

Please give me another helping of Diane di Prima and Anne Waldman. Please tell me again about “Loba” and “Fast Speaking Woman,” as these are key Beat texts (thanks to the work of critics like Grace, they are now acknowledged as such), but how about really telling me something? Maybe discuss the physical book instead of reciting supposedly close readings of reprints and anthologized passages. Are not these supposedly progressive readings of “Loba” and “Fast Speaking Woman” citing third-hand theory just another form of New Criticism? Would it kill anybody to quote an actual letter or two discussing these poems instead of Recollections of My Life as a Woman or some already published interview? But that would require more than getting on Amazon for research since these letters are, most probably, residing in library archives (for example, Waldman’s archive is at the University of Michigan). Why this fear of the body of the text, and, by that I mean, the physical object of the book? Can we have a discussion of how “Loba” and “Fast Speaking Woman” were packaged and presented? They have appeared in multiple editions and in several little magazines.

Diane di Prima, Loba Part IILet’s take “Loba.” When you talk about “Loba” as a poem what exactly are you talking about? From what I can tell, every critic is putting the literary equivalent of a supermodel up for viewing. This is “Loba” dressed and made up as literary spectacle for mass consumption. But what about Loba as Eve published by Phoenix Book Shop in 1975? What about Loba Part I published Capra Press in its chapbook series in 1973? Or Loba Part II by Eidolon Editions in 1976? This is to say nothing about all the magazine appearances. What about “Loba” as a working woman, as a work in progress? How about the image on the cover of Loba as Eve? What does that say as opposed to or in conjunction with the image on Loba Part II? What about the various City Lights packagings of Anne Waldman? Is she not in some ways City Lights’ pin-up? How does Waldman play against and/or with the way her literary image is presented?

This shit matters precisely because we are talking about the work of di Prima and Waldman — precisely because of their work as editors and publishers, an aspect of their careers that is consistently overlooked or glossed over in Beat Criticism (although Daniel Kane’s essay on Angel Hair provides a nice foundation). Di Prima and Waldman know intimately about editing and packaging writers and writing; they did it for years in Floating Bear, Poets Press, Angel Hair, and Rocky Ledge, just to name a few of their publishing outlets. In Mimeo Mimeo, Stephanie Anderson wrote an insightful piece on Alice Notley and her editorship of the mimeo magazine Chicago. Where is something similar on di Prima and Waldman? Enough of the Beat Criticism nightmare. Enough talk of fairy tales. It is time to get real; it is time to wake up to materiality and the archive. 

Modernist criticism has been living the dream for years. I understand that Modernism is accepted in academic circles, but there is no reason, that more than half a century after its birth, Beat Criticism has to step and fetch it before the academic powers that be. Enough of justifying and testifying to Beat Criticism’s validity and importance. There are numerous reasons why the Beat Generation gets little respect in the university. Many of them stem from embarrassment. Such as the Beats’ less than progressive views on race, gender and sexuality. Much serious Beat Criticism corrects and critiques these views thus placing Beat square pegs within the circle of acceptable academic discussion. Yet a Beat Criticism that voices racial, ethnic, and gender issues along the party lines of progressive (and supposedly transgressive) theory is not about difference or plurality at all. It is a processed criticism; it is homogenized not heterogeneous. Beat scholars in the university are just another brick in the wall.

The Beats are also a guilty pleasure. Beat books such as On the Road and poems such as “Howl” provide enjoyment to a general public of “uneducated” readers. Academic criticism hates nothing more than “uneducated” people having a good time. Of course, fun in the academy is theorized into serious play. Language poetry is the epitome of this type of buzzkill, which is one reason for its success in an academic setting. The Language poets really make you work (and go to graduate school) for all those good times. All work and no play make Jack Kerouac scholars dull boys and girls.

More than anything Beat Criticism is just another fucking job. Where is the jouissance? Where is the sense of non-directed play? Criticism should not be all about office hours and conferences. What about happy hour? What about doing some research for the fuck of it? Or because you love and enjoy it. Furthermore, Beat Criticism is almost never creative in the manner of what it criticizes; rather it is merely paperwork. It does not make you think, but instead directs you how to think. The best criticism and theory does not develop because a tenure board orders them to be performed. They come from an expression of pure joy, persistent curiosity, inner compulsion, or simple obsession. A truly inspired Beat Criticism will not be a way to make a living; it will be a way of life. The best literary criticism is truly publish or perish

Modernist criticism seems slightly more creative and full of energy. I emphasize the word slightly. I am thinking of Jerome McGann and his Black Riders first and foremost. One reason McGann is an academic party animal is because his criticism gets lost in the disco of the archive. Why cannot Beat Criticism be the same? Nothing comparable exists. Take the study of little magazines. There is a strong body of work dedicated to the study of Modernist little magazines, including book-length studies. Suzanne Churchill’s study of Others is but one example. There is energy and obsession here. Not McGann to be sure but Churchill’s heart and mind seem to be in the right place. Her study of Others seems an act of passion, a love letter, not an interoffice memo filed for a year-end review.

Maybe I am being deceived because I am looking for love in all the wrong places. More likely, Churchill’s book is just another bureaucratic white paper as evidenced by how it was published. The book is about $100 on Amazon. Her Little Magazines and Modernism: New Approaches is about $125. You have to be in the university system in order to read it. You have to be one of the elect. Academy as Studio 54. The dark side of the disco utopia. The Others Anthologies published in 1916 and 1920 are actually more affordable. If you search around and do not mind about condition you might even be able to get a copy of the actual magazine for that price. I do not want to get all worked up again about the evils of academic publishing but clearly any critique of global capitalism cannot come from press directed or related to the academic market. This market is part of the larger problem and a flawed economic system at best, if not an outright scam.

Let’s get back to Churchill’s Others. For all my hatred of how it was published and distributed, almost nothing similar exists in the realm of the Mimeo Revolution. Let just say it: it is time for DIY. It is time to Search and Destroy. It is time to Re/Search for yourself and Slash through the academic red tape. It is High Time to make these magazines and its criticism available to all. Fuck You, a magazine of the arts is available. My Own Mag is available. Floating Bear is available in an affordable reprint. These magazines were self-published outside of the academy and established publishing system; maybe its criticism should follow the same route.

Yugen 1For example, there is no reason that Yugen, one of the most important little magazines of New American Poetry, cannot withstand the close scrutiny performed on a comparable Modernist magazine such as Others. In fact, a similar approach would work nicely. The raw material is available to scholars, if not to the layman. Jones / Baraka’s archives on Yugen and Floating Bear are sitting at the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana. Talking out of my ass here (I am nothing if not The Talking Asshole), I have never seen a single item from this archive cited in a single (of the many) critical article on Baraka. There is Baraka’s Autobiography. There is Hettie Cohen’s memoir. Both Cohen and Baraka are still alive and can be interviewed on Yugen extensively.

The Yugen book might go something like this: An introductory chapter on the basic history of the magazine and a chapter on the artistic and political development of Leroi Jones as reflected within it. Then just as Churchill dedicated chapters to the development of individual authors in Others, a critical study of Yugen could focus on the development of the concept and labels of New American Poetry (and the Anthology) with its relation to Yugen, and Yugen‘s presentation of the sub-labels of Beat Generation, the New York School, and Black Mountain within its pages.

That would be cool but how about spicing it up a bit, but not with the hot pepper relish of theory. Let’s try something mild for starters. Take Steven Watson’s book on the Beat Generation as a foundation. Not the content of that book, but its format. Let’s play with the format of the academic text in our study of Yugen. Let’s have some fun. If we have our basic chapter structure, let’s throw in some improvisations à la jazz on a number of topics off our main theme. How about the role of advertising within the pages of Yugen? Criticism of modernist magazines has done wonderful things along this line. Mark Morrisson’s landmark The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences and Receptions, 1905-1920 is a case in point. How about a riff on Jack Kerouac’s appearance in Yugen 6? Kerouac generally did not appear in little magazines. What does it mean for Kerouac to appear in Yugen? How did that occur? What was his relationship with Jones and Cohen and the larger New York / New American literary scene? The late 1950s saw Kerouac interacting with his literary and artistic peers, particularly in New York City, in a manner unlike any other in his life. What does it mean to publish “Rimbaud” in Yugen at this point? Is this poem the beginning of Kerouac walking away from a busy literary social life not into Africa, but into the heart of darkness of his mother’s hearth and kitchen? Let’s spend some time analyzing the format of Yugen. What are the positives and negatives of the Totem chapbook format? How did that come about? Was it a design decision or a financial one? Why does the cover art change from issue 3 to issue 4? Can we present some background on the artists who provided this art? How do they fit into the Yugen project? Let’s discuss the role of women in Yugen, not just in its editing and distribution by Hettie Cohen, but in its presentation of women poets or lack thereof?

Furthermore let’s fill the margins of the text, like Watson did, with lists and factoids relating to Yugen and its contributors. Top ten poems in Yugen. Top ten poets rejected by Yugen. Ten places Yugen was sold. Factoids about what was advertised in Yugen. Reprints of reviews of Yugen by contemporaries. Facts about printing costs and the paper used.

There is plenty of work to do. Yugen is now available to all. Such access is the foundation for DIY scholarship. In Beat circles, the academic accounts seem to be always already written; they follow a script. Storm the Reality Studio. Read Yugen for yourself and write your own history. Or incorporate Yugen into your daily life and start your own mag or literary journal.

Download Every Issue of Yugen

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 5 December 2012.

7 thoughts on “DIY Beat Criticism

  1. Aside from the unwarranted snipe at Nancy Grace’s posted syllabus (God, I hope no one ever pays close attention to mine), I agree with the general argument here. I think we must have been in grad school around the same time and got our fill of theory. I’ve always fallen on the side of scholarship over theory, and so much Beat scholarship falls into the theory camp that I find myself rarely able to get through it. Oliver Harris’s Naked Lunch at 50 has several articles that are exceptions to this, and Todd’s book is another good example. What I liked most about it, other than the qualities you mention, is that it’s also clearly a personal book to him. What could be more Beat? Beat scholarship does need to be much more of the roll your sleeves up type. Go to the archives, interview people, find overlooked material, as you say. A friend of mine, for example, just interviewed the daughter of Alene Lee (Mardou Fox in the Subterraneans and one of WSB’s typists, if I’m not mistaken). She had all kinds of great stories her mother told her about Jack Kerouac, Lucien Carr, and Ginsberg–can’t reveal it, I’ll let him publish it all. But that’s the kind of scholarship I admire. One of my favorite critical books is Daniel Hoffman’s Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (I think there are seven Poes in the title). It’s personal, scholarly, and brilliantly insightful as well as a great pleasure to read. The best biography of Kerouac is Jack’s Book, approached in a unique Beat-inspired style. There are many topics of the type you described in your Yugen examples out there ready to be written. It does take some imagination, creativity, hard work, and sometimes travel money. I’ve been lecturing on the Beats and the Kennedy Assassination lately, and I’m writing about it as well, a topic I came across while editing a book called “The Beatest State in the Union”: Texas Beat Generation Writers. It just fell into my lap. Along the way I fell upon fascinating information about Thomas Parkinson, as well as some of the same material about C. Wright Mills Todd Tietchen writes about. I’m not trying to set myself up as some kind of examplar; it’s just that you are right–stop trying to re-interpret stuff that’s already been done and get out there and find something original and scholarly. Anyway, great work as usual Jed, and if we need an example of what you are looking for in Beat scholarship, well, we can start with you . . .

  2. Let me add one more thought. I don’t know the Nancy Grace article you discuss, but I can say that I’ve recently been working on an article Nancy is overseeing, and the review process on that has been the most rigorous I’ve ever encountered. Beat scholars aren’t quite up to the level of Milton scholars, perhaps, in the painstaking accuracy of their work, but we are getting there, and it is perhaps the nature of the material under discussion–so much of it spontaneously composed or otherwise experimental in nature–that has led to some lapses, a kind of imitative fallacy. I don’t know if we are taking Beat literature too seriously or not seriously enough. I do agree with you that more of that kind of spontaneity and originality–a criticism that befits the subject–is needed.

  3. “the beat movement” was a category on “jeopardy’ yesterday. all “the answer is” were answered by contestants except for the one “answer is” “who is william s. burroughs?”:i liked hearing alex trebek say “and that author’s name is william s. burroughs, like the adding machine””

  4. Rob,

    I am not really concerned with painstaking accuracy or thorough editing. Foucault played loose with the facts for example. The superior level of Milton scholarship is based on the fact that Milton scholars have looked at Milton from every possible facet and are always looking for new ways to analyze any aspect of Milton. It has less to do with painstaking accuracy than complete coverage. Beat criticism is rather monotonous in its approach it seems to me. There is lots of applied theory and establishing territory but little in hardcore archival research. This is standard for Milton. Your Lost Years is an exception and a classic in Burroughs scholarship because it gets dirty and turns over all available stones. There is little to no scholarship in Beat book arts, distribution and book production like McGann. This is standard for Milton as well. From what I can tell, Beat criticism is not technologically saavy in using all avaiable media and technology. Milton scholars are pioneers in electronic databases and scanning for example. In particular I would love to see much more creative criticism in approaching Beat Literature, something like Ronald Johnson did with Milton’s Paradise Lost in RADIOS for example.

    I could do with less rigor (mortis) and more obsession and creativity.

  5. A big omission in this piece that I have to correct. Retaking the Universe strikes me as a collection deep in theory that gets it right. Davis Schneiderman also does the type of creative work that I am calling for on top of it all as well as being on point with the technology.

    Check out his work if you havent already.

  6. I think from reading this that you’d enjoy Larry Beckett’s Beat Poetry – which is entirely devoted to the poetics of the Beat Generation and giving it the literary credit it deserves.

  7. A very entertaining rant, and your main point (as I see it) is well taken: academic beat criticism tends to ignore the messy materiality and eccentricity of Beat texts. Academics need to get their hands dirty by: 1) getting into the archive more–and more creatively; and 2) allowing the texts to speak, without having to make them “acceptable” through the use of current fashions in theory and politics.

    Your point about the academic labor system is also a very good one.

    Thanks Jed–


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