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.

13 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.

  6. With skin in the game @ THE NAKED LUNCHEONETTE

    Ahh, but the dice cannot read their own spots,

    i’m poking ‘round in the archaeological digs

    Of a used and improbably mind

    Fumbling among the skipped parts

    & finding that my tongue

    Is the enemy, of my well executed smarts…?

    My inner voice spoke softly ‘bout loud issues

    “Stay an inch or two outta kicking distance…

    And take note of the sanity lost

    From the tears that i cry for it all to stop”

    “Echo, tears, embodiment” says the angel as I fall upon my knees

    (Oh my empty moon, when looking up the skirt of the night sky,

    A dizzying stillness amongst liquid but razor sharp moonbeams

    Revealing my reflection, a “warts and all” kind,

    Now i’m anchored to the moon’s mournful nightlight

    … Shadows caught in the act)

    Ghostly scars are a potent voice

    There’s no LOPSIDED GRACE / when jus’ trying t ’stay human

    My brain had been dissolved in the roaring circuitry

    That flows far within this skull beneath the skin…

    Can’t do what i really feel

    When you hear someone saying “trust me”

    Sinful and angry in the light, No voice (it’s been turned off),

    There’s no strength of decency,

    …And certainly no laughter

    When wedging myself between barely visible and God, i’m cursed.

    Tearing loose, i hear its echo

    “Erosion”, forget-me-not…“Erosion”,

    As bulldozed splinters of pain fleck off

    When I’m knocked to my knees

    i bemoan, “That which is pushed eventually must fall over”

    And freedoms breath is cupped with this action, a suffocating squeeze

    Fingers of tumultuous jostle me –

    Attempting to throw me hard toward kingdom-come…

    i just push them aside,

    Yes, truth blackens all vision

    And remorse burns introspection until blurred

    i am helplessly helpless, no restoration

    As whirlwinds of self-analysis triggers a flapping numb

    i bemoan, “There’s so much bitterness and bad memories consigned”

    Human suffering,

    “Can this drama, the supreme embodiment of the human condition,

    Possibly be okay?”

    My stomach knots

    Outward with an undulating motion, a forceful agitation-
    the harder the rules became

    When i FUCK UP,

    It’s a true 10 on a 10 scale.

    Perfect. i’m a haunted person

    With my soul as a battle-ground,

    i can’t get my dead man’s eyes off of myself

    There is nothing else… i am nothing more

    i used to control and command
    now, one day i started telling everyone that
    god dammit, something must’ve gone wrong

    i go down full throttle, examining my head

    Playing tug-of-war with this rueful rolling mix of brain waves

    Flowing freely, And with concentric outward ripples of fading memories
    i’m sitting up late at night, nothing for no one, nowhere to see

    And here comes the reckoning day
    on judgment day

    Maybe even a…Last gasp?!?

    It’s all scary.

    Especially when i hear the question echo –

    What hurts?

    And you may wonder where I’m supposed to be going?

    Yes; I have been blackened!

    And bullied!

    Why bellow?

    I’m yellow!

    This build up had made me

    So Blue…

    My heart maneuvers through the scenery; a block of ice

    Oh weary me.

    It is oh so terribly


    (The angry tongue splinters and then bullies, why?)

    Problem, have i got a problem?

    That’s a problem, problem, and problem

    How deathly afraid was i now of my frayed angel hair (a tangled mess)

    i don’t think any one man’s life is really that important…

    But what he does with it and leaves behind is

    The ticking clock comes singing / all angry and accusatory

    Often not much has changed in our actual life –

    Yes, i get into the same bed each night trying to go to sleep,

    Thinking that if i look away,

    It might be gone by the time i look back

    It can be worse than this

    Once you’ve been marked it’s finished, done

    So, run my friends, and hide your face – cower in fear

    Now there’s nothing left to say, as turmoil builds in me

    Built from the bones (i cling onto ‘em like a life raft),

    Of my once-upon-a-time friends

    All are gone, all but one

    The one on each die that tumbles away from me

    I keep on lookin away when i stare down at ‘em… screaming SNAKE EYES in frustration

    I know not to mess with the snake eyes

    “Where Flesh Circulates”

    – ooznozz

  7. When reading Wm. Burroughs i fall virtually invisible while moonbeams and razor blades
    take a fresh scalp, mine

    Remember: “Strangely strange can be welcomed change and is usually oddly normal…”

    Gah, yes, I know. It’s time to go down in the basement of our collective mind. It is damp and musty, poorly lit, a very low ceiling and in places very dark. It is an underground space and what you see is very much like what you’d see when a large rock is lifted up off a damp floor – ugly basement-like Things that are scurrying ‘bout. Hey jus’ maybe this is my Naked Luncheonette imagination working overtime and thinking, “Hmm, whatever” – Bottom-line ; This is the place ya wanna be at…

    Said the ugly basement-like Thing…


    – ooznozz

  8. Hello, I have a poem about men Burroughs as I encountered his work as a young person and was wondering if I could send it to you?

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