William S. Burroughs and John Wieners’ Measure

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

Measure #1I’m that type of guy that gets lost in the footnotes. So ridiculous, but more often than not there is a ton of cool information to be found in there. Read beneath the lines because many times the real story lies buried at the bottom of the page or in the back of the book. Yet sometimes a footnote can lead you astray and send you on a wild goose chase. Such was the case recently in connection with John Wieners‘ seminal little mag Measure. Luckily at the end of the day this wild goose produced some golden eggs. 

Here is the footnote in question:  

William S Burroughs (1914-1997) was a central figure in the Beat movement and the larger American avant-garde, known for surreal gritty novels like Junky and Queer. Before challenging censorship laws in Boston and Los Angeles in 1962, Naked Lunch was published in excerpts in the Chicago Review, the Black Mountain Review, and Measure, where it appeared under the pseudonym William Lee.

The footnote comes from “the sea under the house”: The Selected Correspondence of John Wieners and Charles Olson Part I, edited by Michael Seth Stewart, and published as part of CUNY’s Lost and Found Series. I have raved about the Lost and Found Series before and Stewart’s chapbook is no exception. The Wieners/Olson letters are yet another great collection recovered from the archives. Again if you have not already sampled these nuggets, give yourself a treat and get the Lost and Found chapbooks. They are really special.

This footnote — number 70 on page 44 — is of interest to Burroughs fans and one to mull over a bit. Like the question: What is Burroughs really known for? Is he a literary figure or a cultural figure? Is he really read or just referenced and named-checked? If read, what mark did he leave on literary history? What books to people “know?” Is it really Junky and Queer? Junkie seems a good bet. But Queer? Strange choice to be sure. Also are those books surreal and gritty? Debatable. Again that is what makes it an interesting footnote, it opens up discussion and gets you thinking. How would I describe Burroughs’ legacy? Well, I would probably focus a little further down in the footnote with Naked Lunch, censorship, and little mags. That is where my attention is and, in this case, where my attention was drawn.  

I was particularly excited and confused by the suggestion that an excerpt of Naked Lunch appeared in John Wieners’ Measure. I knew that it could not be true. There is absolutely no way that Maynard & Miles, and then Shoaf and Schottlaender, would have missed a Burroughs appearance in a magazine as important and celebrated as Measure. No fucking way.  

Measure #2But you know what, I drank the Kool-Aid, quite simply because I wanted it to be true. In my world, My Burroughs would have been published in Measure. His bibliography would be a more interesting, more fascinating place because of such an appearance, just like Burroughs appearing in Jack Spicer’s J would alter the boundaries of Burroughs’ bibliography. So I did what any Burroughs collector would do, I bought Measure No. 2 in the futile hope that everybody missed something and that Burroughs was tucked in there somewhere. It is the Magic issue after all and finding Burroughs within its pages would be like pulling a White Rabbit out of a fedora. Reading Burroughs alongside Creeley, Olson, Stephen Jonas, and Robin Blaser would be quite juxtaposition. Such is the alchemy of the little mag. What Burroughs collector would not search for this philosopher’s stone, the elusive unrecorded Burroughs item? That is a lot of woulds. But what it all comes down to is: Wouldn’t You?

So Measure #2 arrived and of course Burroughs was nowhere to be found. Natch. Then I did what any Burroughs collector would do, I doubled (maybe I should say tripled, quadrupled??) down and bought all three issues of Measure as well as a poster announcing a benefit reading held to raise funds for Issue 3 and the accompanying press release, possibly a draft, typed on carbon paper with some slight hand corrections. Now this is perfectly natural, because for a true Burroughs obsessive even where Burroughs does not appear his presence is felt. Burroughs’ absence is fascinating and worthy of note. Right? Well, maybe not, but I could not help getting the complete Measure because of this incorrect footnote.  

You have to go back to the body of page 44 to get a sense of where I am coming from. In a letter from Wieners to Olson, dated August 19, 1957, Wieners lays out the plan of action for Measure‘s future: “I think I gave you contents of II before, it is III now that has all kinds of excitements potential.” And there in the list of potential contributions to what became Measure 2 and 3 is this tidbit: “Then long prose FRAGMENT OF A BLUE MOVIE by someone who has to write under pseudonym of William Lee.” Let’s chew on this for a minute. Let’s savor it. How fucking cool and mysterious is that?  

August 19, 1957. Burroughs is in Copenhagen. Ginsberg and Kerouac had been in Tangier in the Spring and early Summer and, with the help of Alan Ansen, the collation and composition of Naked Lunch was going full steam ahead. “FRAGMENT OF A BLUE MOVIE” appears to be a version of what became the A.J.’s Annual Party section of the published novel, which opens:

A.J. turns to the guests. “Cunts, pricks, fence straddlers, tonight I give you — that international-known impresario of blue movies and short-wave TV, the one, the only, The Great Slashtubitch.”

The Ohio State University archive possesses the original manuscript and a note by James Grauerholz confirms that this section made it into the published version of Naked Lunch. Well, in the Summer 1957, Burroughs is hot to trot to get Naked Lunch into print:  

I wish someone would take five minutes to send along the MS. — leaving “Word” aside for the moment and ending MS. with “Market” section. After all, it takes long enough to locate a publisher without unnecessary delays. (Letter to Alan Ansen, July 18, 1957).

Olympia Press, New Directions, New Writing were in the mix, but as Burroughs pointed out such publishers were slow to act. In fact they, along with Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights, were steadfast against publication. What to do? Turn to the tradition of the little magazine, naturally.  

Measure #3And it is at this point that you have to close the book of Burroughs’ letters and open up the letters of Ginsberg. The importance of Ginsberg is often compared to T.S. Eliot. “Howl” is considered “The Waste Land” of the post-WWII era, a work that altered the poetic landscape from the moment of its arrival. True, but I think of Ginsberg’s primary influence as Poundian in nature. The Pound of the Teens, the Pound associated with Poetry and The Little Review. Ginsberg was a mover and a shaker through his poetry to be sure, but I am more interested in his role as a promotor and cheerleader of the work of others. Pound did this throughout the Teens and Twenties with Eliot, James Joyce, and others. Particularly with Joyce, Pound got the unpublishable into print. Pound’s network of contacts was as important as his Cantos.  

Same with Ginsberg’s legendary address book. The period of 1957-1963 is parallel to the period of 1913-1922 when Modernism found its voice in little mags. The mags of 1957 to 1963 represents the talkie era that emerged out of the silent era of the Mimeograph Revolution that began at Waldport conscientious objector camp with Untide Press. The publication of “Howl” and On the Road in 1957 announced that a young generation of writers had something new and revolutionary to say and Ginzy, like Ez before him, was that generation’s spokesman. The letters of Ginsberg from this period provide an amazing record of just how hard he networked to get writers like Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and Gary Snyder into print — all while dealing with the obscenity trial relating to “Howl.” Ginsberg learned how to network not from his job in advertising, so much as from following the example of Pound. Pound’s concept of the little mag provided the blueprint for the Mimeo Revolution. Pound’s Blast was the shot heard round the underground. The Big Bang if you will and nobody benefited from Ginsberg’s putting Pound into practice as much as Burroughs.

The first mention of Measure in Ginsberg’s published letters is in a letter to painter Robert LaVigne from June 8, 1957:  

New poetry magazine from one John Wieners, Boston, should be the great one, he’s trying to draw all threads together and is good poet himself, sort of an east coast Creeley-Olson axis but more humane digs [Jonathan] Williams and Kerouac and Gregory. Write him subscribe if you have loot or tell him you have none and ask for free copy — MEASURE magazine.

Black Mountain Review #7Ginsberg wrote this letter from Tangier while working with Burroughs on Naked Lunch. Wieners sent Ginsberg a letter asking for a submission. Ginsberg was too busy working on Burroughs’ manuscripts to have any of his own, so between June and August, Ginsberg sent Wieners the Burroughs manuscript for potential publication along with other material he had at hand such as Peter Orlovsky’s first poem. Over the years, Ginsberg continued to have high hopes for Wieners and Measure, which never became a true “great one,” like Black Mountain Review. Black Mountain Review was a model for Measure, which is not surprising given that Wieners attended the experimental college and studied with Creeley and Olson, whose concept of the little mag Wieners adopted. Again Creeley and Olson learned from Pound’s example.  

Wieners’ financial, drug, and mental problems would eventually destroy Measure‘s potential, but in the summer of 1957 anything seemed possible. The first issue of Measure came out featuring poems and work from Charles Olson, Edward Marshall, Robin Blaser, Edward Dorn, Larry Eigner, Frank O’Hara, Fielding Dawson, Stephen Jonas, Michael Rumaker, Gavin Douglas, Jack Spicer, Jonathan Williams, and Robert Duncan. The “axis” of the magazine was Boston Renaissance (Olson, Blaser, Spicer, Jonas) and Black Mountain (Olson, Dorn, Dawson, Rumaker, Williams, Duncan) with a pinch of San Francisco Renaissance (Spicer, Duncan) and New York School (O’Hara). In essence Wieners succeeded in “draw[ing] all threads together” of what would become defined in Donald Allen’s landmark anthology of 1960 as New American Poetry. All that was missing from this first issue were the Beats. Ginsberg’s efforts would change that in the second issue, which featured Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso along with Holy Barbarian and West Coast Beat Stuart Perkoff. With these two issues, Wieners provided the foundation for Donald Allen to build his anthology, which eventually did more than merely define New American Poetry, it canonized it — thus solidifying Measure‘s crucial role in the Mimeo Revolution and Wieners’ genius as an editor. Designed as a quarterly, Issue Two of Measure appeared over a year later. Issue Three would not appear until Summer 1962, by which point New American Poetry was fully established. The third issue lacks the previous issues’ cohesion, purpose, and force of statement. Despite being only 36 pages as opposed to the 64 pages of Issue Two, it rambles and stumbles. The issue reflects Wieners’ own mental state of disorientation and confusion. It gives off a sense of depression and exhaustion.  

Measure Press Release, Page 1Despite Wieners’ personal and financial difficulties, Ginsberg remained optimistic about Measure as a viable outlet a couple of years after the first issue. If Ginsberg could not improve Wieners’ mental state, he could attempt to improve his financial situation, which he did in May 1959, by spearheading a group reading in support of the third issue of Measure: A Return of Measure Monster Poetry Reading held on May 23, 1959, at Garibaldi Hall on 441 Broadway in San Francisco. Ginsberg and Wieners composed the press release for the reading. Once again Ginsberg demonstrated his acumen with public relations. Remember Ginsberg performed this task in the advertising industry at one time. “This is the first and last time that these Monsters will hold hands on the same stage. People in the sticks like would die to get in on this scene. The poets will read from a high balcony surrounded by American Flags and Lunar Haloes. There will be no bad jazz.” That sounds like pure Ginsberg.

Measure Reading, PosterThe reading featured Ginsberg, James Broughton, Christopher MacLaine, Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, David Meltzer, Jack Spicer, Philip Whalen and Wieners. Tickets were $1 and 400 people showed up. It is primarily interesting for bringing together many of the “monsters” in the SF Renaissance, which by 1959 were far from the cohesive group presented in the 1957 San Francisco Scene issue of Evergreen Review. In fact they never were and by 1959 that scene was further fragmented with the group in-fighting among themselves rather than operating as a front against the literary establishment. It is an impressive gathering of poets. And filmmakers by the way. Broughton and MacLaine were both. MacLaine has been lost to history to an extent. A tragic story of a mad genius that was all too common with the poets and people around Wieners. Think Issue 33 of Floating Bear as guest-edited by Wieners with its collection of poet-junkies who crashed and burned. That issue could be viewed as Measure 4. The work survives even if the poets and artists themselves fade from memory. For example, check out MacLaine’s film The End on UbuWeb.  

Besides the presence of the reclusive MacLaine, the fact that Jack Spicer participated in the reading is particularly remarkable given his feelings about Wieners and Measure. Unlike Ginsberg, Spicer lacked faith in Wieners’ ability to pull much of anything off be it poetry or publishing. From Poet Be Like God, the biography of Spicer and his circle:  

The same ambivalence can be seen in his attitude toward John Wieners’s prospective magazine Measure. In his letters to Boston, Spicer circled warily about Wieners’ potential as an editor, his plusses and minuses. Avoiding the use of Wieners’s name wasn’t difficult, not when you could call him “Hot Dog,” as Jack did.

Measure Press Release, Page 2In his conspiracy theory as poem on the 1962 National League pennant, “The Fix,” Spicer wrote, “This is an ode to John Wieners and Auerhahn Press/who have driven me away from poetry like a fast car.” As explained in Poet Be Like God, Spicer was fed up with the four-year delay in publishing the third issue of Measure due to Wieners’ ongoing financial and drug problems. So it is startling to see Spicer’s name on the poster announcing the Measure reading and even more shocking that he actually showed up to read in support. Ever the peacemaker, at the after-party for the reading, Ginsberg attempted to “patch up bad feelings by giving Spicer a blow job in full view of the other guests,” according to Bill Morgan’s biography of Ginsberg, I Celebrate Myself. Spicer did not rise to the occasion and remained leery of Ginsberg and Wieners.  

Burroughs did not appear in the third issue either, although by this time Burroughs was all over the little magazine scene. Possibly the urgent need to publish Naked Lunch had passed by that point, but the question remains why Wieners declined to publish Burroughs in the Winter 1958 at a critical juncture in the publication history of the novel. By that point only Black Mountain Review, The Chicago Review, and Yugen had taken the bait thrown out by Ginsberg. These appearances occurred in the Spring and Fall 1958 (Black Mountain Review #7 is listed as Autumn 1957, but Maynard & Miles states it was actually issued in Spring 1958. I am not sure about that. Paul Blackburn in “The Grinding Down” states the magazine was available to the American public in Autumn 1957.) Publishing a section of Naked Lunch in Winter 1958 would have been a big catch for Wieners’ magazine.  

And therein resides the problem: Burroughs’ notoriety. Remember Ginsberg sent Wieners “FRAGMENTS OF A BLUE MOVIE,” which may have included this (as published in the Olympia Press Naked Lunch in the Summer 1959):

“Come along baby.” She leads the way into the bedroom. He lies down on his back and throws his legs back over his head, clasping elbows behind his knees. She kneels down and caresses the backs of his thighs, his balls, running her finger down the perennial divide. She pushes his cheeks apart, leans down and begins licking the anus, moving her head in a slow circle. She pushes at the sides of the asshole, licking deeper and deeper. He closes his eyes and squirms. She licks up the perennial divide. His small, tight balls. A great pearl stands out on the tip of his circumcised cock. Her mouth closes over the crown. She sucks rhythmically up and down, pausing on the up stroke and moving her head around in a circle.

In 1957 when Wieners received Burroughs’ manuscript, he had no idea who Burroughs was. He was merely “someone who has to write under the pseudonym of William Lee.” The excerpt above suggests the reason for the subterfuge. We cannot excuse Wieners for wondering: What the fuck is this and who the fuck wrote it?!!? Remember in the Summer 1957, the Howl trial was in full swing. Wieners was one of the “best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” Wieners knew intimately of those “who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love.” He after all wrote “A Poem for Cocksuckers” in The Hotel Wentley Poems, published as the first book of David Haselwood’s Auerhahn Press in the Summer 1958. Wieners’ experience with publishing his first book suggests why Burroughs did not appear in Measure. The San Francisco printer of The Hotel Wentley Poems issued “A Poem for Cocksuckers” as “A Poem For _ _ _ _suckers.” Haselwood was so incensed that he took up printing himself to prevent future censorship. Wiener would always fill in the blanks when signing copies of the first edition, but clearly he understood that if the word “cocksuckers” was deemed as obscene, Burroughs’ manuscript was unpublishable.  

At the time in 1958, despite the efforts of Black Mountain Review, Yugen, and The Chicago Review, this seemed to be the general consensus. In a long letter to John Hollander of September 7, 1958, Ginsberg lays out the state of the union in the nascent world of New American Poetry. The letter is a rant about the difficulty of getting published, reviewed, and recognized by the literary establishment. It is a letter as fascinating and famous as his one to Richard Eberhardt in 1956, which laid out the poetics behind “Howl.” The Hollander letter demonstrates that two years later, the powers-that-be still don’t get where “Howl” or the New American Poetry is coming from. The job of being the movement’s spokesman was making Ginsberg scream. Ginsberg writes:  

To have to tackle all that single-handedly practically and then be put down for all that — I DIDN’T HAVE TO TAKE THE TROUBLE- to have to listen to Rhav in Venice giggling that there’s no poetry in U.S. so that’s why they didn’t have a poetry editor at all 2 year ago — which was just his ignorance and the ignorance of all non-poets — yet he’s RUNNING this so called mental newssheet!? and to call that responsible culture? And to have them and everybody else ignoring totally the productions of Jonathan Williams’ Jargon series which for 8 years was the only respectable publishing company for experimental poetry — and total ignorance of all the work developed out of Black Mountain — the fuck sneers if anything — total incomprehension of Creeley’s funny volumes of verse, nobody reviewed or heard of Blackburn’s book (Dissolving Fabric — not GREAT but real), nor Levertov’s nor Zukofsky’s books there reviewed, Black Mountain Review the only decent mag operating for poets in America circulating 300 copies and nobody supposedly responsible at Columbia or anywhere else taking the trouble to HELP, and the other BM poet minors, Oppenheimer, Perkoff, maybe Duncan etc. — and the great new young ones John Wieners and Edward Marshall — whom nobody ever heard of — or will investigate — and don’t think I haven’t written this to anybody I could get hold of, Gold, Rhav, Mademoiselle, Hudson, New World Writing, endless conversations and letters and explanations and trying to spread some good news, Life, and have them fuck it all up with the indifference or vulgar money journalism — and the whole problem of the Burroughs manuscript legally uncirculatable here in the U.S. — to say nothing of the great unknown Boston group around John Wieners (got a magazine Measure out in SF now) — and the beginning of interconnection of all these with the NY people, O’Hara Ashbery Koch — at least these latter three pick up on something, and have some sympathy and openness, and respond to original attempts at composition.

To go back to Stewart’s footnote in his chapbook. In 1962, Naked Lunch faced an obscenity trial in Boston. What would have been the reaction to Issue Two of Measure had Burroughs appeared? Ginsberg spells it out in the quote above. The climate in the Fall 1958 was complete indifference by the literary establishment unless the response was complete outrage and censorship as in the case of Burroughs. In such a climate with his limited financial means, it seems likely that Wieners could not risk an obscenity trial. No benefit reading, no matter how well attended, could foot the legal bill. So I suspect that Wieners, despite the courage and conviction demonstrated in his own poetry, had to pass on the Burroughs manuscript. So even Burroughs’ absence from Measure tells quite a story.

It is a shame; as I have written about in connection with John Ciardi, Burroughs has a place in the literary scene of the Boston Renaissance. I for one would love to read Burroughs alongside Stephen Jonas, a forgotten junkie poet out of Boston that I am particularly fond of. Little mags let you eavesdrop on those types of conversation. Even if they never happened. That is why I collect little mags and love them so much. So buying the complete run of Measure is really a no-brainer for a Burroughs collector, if you just take the time to think about it a little bit.

Measure Archive

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 15 October 2016.

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