Locus Solus

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

The history and contents of the magazine Locus Solus provide insight into the type of progressive poetry circles and ideas Burroughs started tapping into with his small scale, textual cut-up works of the early 1960s. A testament to refined taste, Locus Solus was impeccably edited by John Ashbery (Issue 3/4), Kenneth Koch (Issue 2), and James Schuyler (Issue 1 and 5). Harry Matthews published the magazine in France. One issue was done in Switzerland. Matthews was the only American member of an intriguing group of writers: OULIPO. OULIPO was a largely French writing society that specialized in complex word games and the surreal. Ashbery, Koch and Schuyler, along with the charismatic and talented Frank O’Hara, formed the core of the First Generation New York School. The New York School, like the Beat Generation (the Beats also had a four-person core — Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Corso), went through two or three generations beyond the initial core group.

Locus Solus ILocus Solus took its name from Raymond Roussel’s classic, which betrays the editors’ affinity for the avant garde, the European, and the highly intellectual. The Collaboration issue (Locus Solus II) opens with a quote by Roussel and is then followed by a quote from Lautréamont (both untranslated). The table of contents to the magazine features classic Chinese and Japanese poets, Shakespeare, Aeschylus, John Donne, André Breton, Dwight Eisenhower, Sir John Suckling: in short a wide selection of the history of Western and Eastern culture. The poets were intensely interested in modern art and music. Influenced and inspired by Abstract Expressionists like Willem De Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline, the New York School poets lived and worked with Second Generation New York painters, like Grace Hartigan, Mike Goldberg, and Jane Franchlier. The magazine’s squat, plain appearance mimics the style of French publications from Gallimard. The Special Collaboration issue features a few Burroughs cut-ups of Rimbaud with Gregory Corso from Minutes to Go. The Exterminator also published in 1960 offered further examples of the textual cut-up. The New York poets all experimented with cut-up techniques (as well as other surrealist techniques of automatic writing and composition) in the early 1960s. Many of these creations are in the pages of Locus Solus. First and foremost, the magazine served as a vehicle for the New York School poets to express and to spread their artistic aesthetic.

Locus Solus IIIn 1962 around the time of Locus Solus II, John Asbery published his breakthrough collection, The Tennis Court Oath. Still a highspot of contemporary avant garde poetry, the collection explores the same ground that Burroughs covered in his early cut-up experiments. Ashbery mixes surrealism, concrete poetry, the yet-to-be established Language poetry, and cut-up techniques to form a radically new art. Ashbery’s comments on these poems are similar to Burroughs’ own ideas and practice. Ashbery states, “And I was also rather interested in trying something new, [and] having difficulty in doing this, living in a country where the language spoken was not my own. And I began a lot of experiments, using collage techniques, especially from American and/or English books and magazines, perhaps to feel that I had a toehold in the English language.” He continues, “My intention was to be after… kind of… taking language apart so I could look at the pieces that made it up. I would eventually get around to putting them back together again, and would then have more of a knowledge of how they worked, together.”

Locus Solus III-IVAlthough I am shaky at best regarding their literary theories, it seems clear to me that Ashbery and Burroughs are using similar techniques and have a similar preoccupation with language and the nature of written communication. Ashbery believed language should ultimately depend on references to meanings generated outside language. Burroughs has no interest in putting words back together in order to learn more about how words worked, like Ashbery. Instead, he seeks to blow apart language in order to reach a higher, more advanced knowledge. Burroughs yearns for silence or a pictorial system of communication like hieroglyphics that merge word and image. I have always been somewhat baffled by discussions of this type and a more informed opinions would be appreciated. What is interesting to me is how Burroughs fits into a larger, international discussion of the time. I think this is symbolized by Burroughs’ move from the isolation of Tangier or Mexico City to the central location of Paris. Although Burroughs still works at the artistic margins in comparison to mainstream literature, his work of this period situates itself squarely in the tradition of the literary and artistic avant garde which often found a home base in Paris.

In poems like “The Skaters,” readers of Ashbery encounter “an intractable flux of verbal ‘found objects,’ shifting styles and registers, teasing literary allusions and echoes, fragmentary narrative episodes and descriptive scenes.” Such a statement could be describing Naked Lunch or the true cut-up novels. I am not suggesting that Burroughs influenced Ashbery or vice versa, but I am stating that Burroughs with the cut-up moved from largely a drug novelist who dabbled in more literary aspects, as witnessed in Junkie, the then unpublished Yage Letters and “Letter from a Master Addict,” to an avant garde writer fully experimenting with literary theory. Not surprisingly, Ashbery supported Burroughs’ inclusion in the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983. In literary magazines like Locus Solus, Burroughs appeared prominently in an international avant garde circle. Clearly, the poets of the New York School saw at an early date that Burroughs was a fellow traveler along newly laid paths in the postmodern literary landscape.

Locus Solus Cover Archive

Locus Solus I

Locus Solus I

Locus Solus II

Locus Solus II

Locus Solus III-IV

Locus Solus III-IV

Locus Solus V

Locus Solus V

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 25 May 2006. Updated with cover archive on 3 October 2007.

5 thoughts on “Locus Solus

  1. In one of the Brion Gysin interviews in RE/Search #4/5, Gysin has an interesting (but somewhat clueless) comment on Locus Solus: “Almost immediately, within the very first few months, there was a group of American poets that brought out a two-volume book their ‘genius’ work called Locus Solus, which was all cut-ups. But they never acknowledged it–it happened within six months of the publication of Minutes To Go, in January 1960.” Gysin seems unaware that Burroughs published some material in Locus Solus II.

    Also, it’s Harry Mathews not Matthews. And he wasn’t a member of the Oulipo until years after Locus Solus ceased publication.

  2. Thanks for the information. Just back from the trek in the Himalayas and while hovering around in Thamel, one of Kathmandu’s famous tourist hub, in the Pilgrims book shop I bought a poetry collection titled ” Safa Tempo: Poems new and selected,” which I read on my flight back home and was shocked by the poets originality and style. Allen Ginsberg would have hugged Bhuwan Thapaliya, the poet from Nepal, if he were to read his works today. Thanks.

  3. Dear Jed, I just read this, last night actually… apologies.. about the point on ‘silent’ reading or hieroglyphs… I think about it this way. Burroughs’ theory of Word as virus concerns pathological aspects of language (obviously, there are some pros as well as cons and let’s face it, Burroughs was himself a paid up member of the Shakespeare squadron). Human language is considered a bio-cultural thing (Chomsky), that is, it is not just acquired from the environment but is in certain ways innate to the species. Incidentally, the Exterminator clearly makes link between genetic code and language as code. And French literary theory highlights the text or reader in whole operation of language, showing ‘author’ is in fact a function of the text, that ‘we are the language’ (bit like Rimbaud’s I am thought). The Word is a kind of complex machine and it can do the thinking on its own without any body just fine (Derrida’s likening the written word to a virus that can only repeat itself word for word is interesting). Burroughs wants the virus out of the body; to shut off the inner voice (most use of language is sub vocal) – he wants to inactivate it. So he wants it all cut up.. and shut up… the words will of course scramble to reconstruct themselves as meaning. Remember that Burroughs says writing is unique to the species, and that it preceded speech. ‘Language’ in this view is a kind of writing or code, a synchronic system (an important point), like mathematics, and as inexhaustible. But on types of physical writing… according to Derrida, it was the need to record foreign names that spurred phoneticisation in the West, but this ‘project’ has never fully been realised and the bottom line is any script must be considered hybrid ‘picto-ideo-phonographic’. There are of course many (proto?) ideographic elements in English, where spelling is anything but phonetic. Also, Michael D. Coe’s Breaking the Maya Code (Thames and Hudson, 1992), finally shows that ancient Mayan script is in principle no different from modern Japanese (a mix of picto/ideo and phono elements). And I think much of Burroughs’ late work is conducive to an almost silent reading-in-pictures… hope this raises some interesting questions, anyway.. I ponder Gysin’s hiero-glyph on the first Cat inside everyday.

  4. James,

    Thanks for the insights. This Locus Solus post is one of the first things I wrote for RS. In terms of Burroughs’ theories of language I haven’t progressed much. The bibliographic elements I have made much more progress.

    Around the time I was wrestling with Burroughs and the virus and language, I met an interesting guy on my commute.

    You ever read this interview:

    It is from quite a while ago and is somewhat buried on the site. You might find it interesting if you haven’t read it.

    Thanks for your time reading my posts. I really appreciate it.

  5. Jed, yes apologies, for being so distracted recently and for not first thinking before conveying the thoughts, which are admittedly inconclusive. I, too, have not made that much progress. I approach the issue as one with a background in linguistics, and sympathy for Chomsky’s view of language as biocultural (still a minority view). Burroughs’ word as virus meme is I think enigmatic and intriguing for more reasons than I am able to articulate.. And thanks for the link, and particularly the tower of Babel stuff.. Fascinating..

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