Pilgrims to Elsewhere: Reflections on Writings by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman and Others.
Afterward by Bent Sorensen. (Roskilde: EyeCorner Press, 2013).
Well known in the area of Beat studies, Gregory Stephenson, author of The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation (1990), has compiled another collection of essays ranging from some of the core Beat writers he addressed in his earlier collection, such as Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Corso, to late nineteenth--and early twentieth-century writers James S. Lee and Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who Stephenson suggests we consider Beat predecessors. At sixty-seven years of age, Stephenson has assembled his recent writings on the Beats in Pilgrims to Elsewhere, a slim 111-page volume made up of fourteen chapters and an afterward by Bent S0rensen (publisher of EyeCorner Press). Pilgrims contains five close readings, a set of explanatory notes for readers of The Dharma Bums, three book reviews, a substantial essay on the work of Bob Kaufman, three brief cultural studies essays on Kerouac and Corso, as well notes on Ken Nordine and James S. Lee. What ties these disparate essays together, according to Stephenson, is a certain "disposition of spirit" shared by these writers; a sense of "being in exile on the earth ... even as they share a desire to discover ... a spiritual home" ("Preface" n.p.). Stephenson echoes here the concluding paragraph of his introduction to The Daybreak Boys: "The enduring value of these works lies in their particular pertinence to the central issues of human existence, their probing of human identity, and their quest for sacred vision" (15).
The content of Pilgrims to Elsewhere is anchored by the first three essays--a close reading of Ginsberg's "Supermarket in California," the Kaufman overview, and a close reading of Kerouac's Old Angel Midnight, the latter of which is one of six chapters on Kerouac in the volume, including two brief close readings of On the Road, a review of Isaac Gewirtz's Kerouac at Bat: Fantasy Sports and the King of the Beats, the above-mentioned explanatory notes, and a short cultural studies look at Kerouac and Harpo Marx. The first of these close readings explores the motif of rivers in On the Road. Stephenson sees the "river image as a potent, central symbol enriching and uniting [Kerouac's] narrative" (48), one which suggests "a larger, deeper scheme of things within which the lives of the novel's characters take place" (49); rivers "evoke a mystic or metaphysical sense of our place in history and eternity and thus act to underpin one of the novel's deepest truths, the sense of life's wonder and mystery, the sense of the infinite" (49). The second brief essay, which is partly a close reading and partly a cultural studies analysis, centers on Sal's night in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a place where, Stephenson suggests, the novel's "thematic strands ... of anticipation and disappointment, ideals and realities, purpose and weakness, and knowledge of human duality and of the sorrow inherent in existence" first intersect (50). It is in Cheyenne that Sal experiences an emotion that will reoccur throughout the novel: "watching figures recede into the vastness behind him or away from him, feeling as they vanish from view an implacable sense of loneliness and loss"; here he learns the "inevitable forlornness of the human condition" (52-53). The latter half of this essay provides explanatory notes gleaned from the Cheyenne Genealogical and Historical Society for "the deeply devoted reader of On the Road'--facts and figures from radio station call letters and street names, to a brief history of chili con carne, a dish Sal indulges in during his night in Cheyenne.
The most fully realized of the Kerouac essays is "Earwitness Testimony: Sound and Sense, Word and Void in Jack Kerouac's Old Angel Midnight," which, interestingly, is the only essay in the collection that cites previous Beat scholarship. In fewer than thirty words, Stephenson quotes Dennis McNally, Gerald Nicosia, and James Jones as a jumping off point for his own reading of Old Angel Midnight. The book's lack of engagement with other Beat scholars is acceptable, though, considering that the subtitle informs us that these are "Reflections," not necessarily all-encompassing cutting-edge scholarship. The three "sympathetic readers," Stephenson argues, find Old Angel Midnight "'devoid of meaning in the common sense'" (quoting McNally), whereas he suggests that "the poem as a whole is not incomprehensible, and that (whatever other motifs may be present) Old Angel Midnight is essentially an expression of the most fundamental theme in Kerouac's writing--the search for reality" (36). Although McNally does refer to the poem as "devoid of meaning in the common sense" in Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation and America (1979), he does not argue that it is the "Deathblow Putdown" Stephenson links his reading to; rather, McNally suggests Old Angel Midnight attempts to catch the "infinite sound of the universe ... [in a] ... high argument between Jack and God ..." (216), a reading which seems to coincide with Stephenson's own argument. Likewise, Nicosia claims the poem is "animated by the tension between the knowledge that reality is deceptive and the hope that art can be truer ..." (518). These points aside, Stephenson's subtle reading of the poem is substantial in content and length; indeed, it is twice as long as the combined number of pages all three critics he cites dedicate to the poem themselves. Stephenson sees Old Angel Midnight as a "kind of Buddhist cartoon, a vignette of infinity" in which "the teeming, babbling, multitudinous, mad world in all its mystery, comedy and horror" can be seen in "miniature, ... symbolizing the serene eternal emptiness of the Void or Divine Mind" (44). As such, he situates the poem alongside other Buddhist-themed texts such as Tristessa, Visions of Gerard, and Mexico City Blues.
As is the case with several of the chapters in The Daybreak Boys, "'The Beginning of the End': The Poetry of Bob Kaufman" provides readers new to the poet's work with a broad overview and discussion of the trajectory of his aesthetics from his earliest to most recent work. Indeed, this appears to be Stephenson's preferred mode of writing, which is understandable considering he was, according to S0rensen, the "one and only serious Beat scholar and specialist in Denmark" before the recent establishment of the European Beat Studies Network, which just "launched Pilgrims to Elsewhere at their second conference in Aalborg, Denmark" ("Afterward" 110). In other words, these essays tend to address themselves more toward new readers of the Beats than to seasoned American and other Beat scholars. However, as I discuss later, this focus gives the book an intriguing place in the Beat studies classroom.
Stephenson situates Kaufman's poems within three categories: "the personalist lyric, the poem as social protest, and the visionary poem," providing close readings of representative examples from each of Kaufman's books (21). Stephenson sees Kaufman primarily as a surrealist poet who employs "disjunction, ellipsis and fragmentation, inconsequence and juxtaposition" (21), and while he does acknowledge that Kaufman's improvisation comes from both jazz and surrealism, he does not discuss the former at any length. (1) The "personalist" theme, according to Stephenson's brief close readings, are "expressed in terms of surrealist metaphors" (22) in poems such as "I Have Folded My Sorrows," "Dolorous Echo," and "The Poet." Kaufman moves from "a calm control of the speaker's sadness and anguish" in the former (Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness 1965), to accepting his fate as a poet "despite the suffering inevitably to be endured" in taking on that role in the latter (The Ancient Rain 1981). His protest poems, such as "Benediction" and "The Ancient Rain," see "post-war American society as one compounded of interlocking, overlapping, mutually reinforcing systems or structures of power ... [which] promote ... homogeneity, complacency and passivity ..." (28). Kaufman's weapons, according to Stephenson, are humor and horror, calling to mind Corso's "Bomb," which Stephenson discusses later in the book. In his last collection, The Ancient Rain, Kaufman, while still openly critical of the United States, "remains resolutely optimistic as to the future glory of the nation" (29), a stance that was not fashionable among the literary left of the 1970s. What is needed, akin to Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes' visions of American equality, is the acceptance from the "waves of immigrants who fled ... tyranny and hunger and injustice" ("The Ancient Rain" 77) of African Americans into the "great Sun of the Center" of democratic practices and ideals (81). Finally, Stephenson addresses what he refers to as Kaufman's "visionary and revelatory" poems. By "visionary," he does not suggest oracular meaning; rather, he argues that the "visionary quality of his poetry derives from his recurrent concern with supernatural experience," which often produced "startling, extravagant and magical images" through the poet's spontaneous composition of poems such as "Sun" and "Slight Alterations" (30). Though "uneven in quality," Stephenson closes by saying that Kaufman's most successful poems "manifest a powerful visual imagination and a daring intelligence" rife with "urgency and vividness of expression" (34).
In his earlier essay on Corso in The Daybreak Boys, "'The Arcadian Map': Notes on the Poetry of Gregory Corso," Stephenson argued that Corso's poetics of the imagination is founded on "a rejection of the tyranny of the real" (75). As he does in his Kaufman essay above, Stephenson posits an overarching thesis on the poet's aesthetic and follows its development throughout the poet's oeuvre. In the current volume, Stephenson includes two short three-to-four page close readings of two of Corso's poems: one well-known ("Bomb"), the other ("On Seeing Shelly's Paintings") a poem about painter Patrick Shelly who was "rediscovered" by Stephenson in Scene magazine. The latter essay, "A Few Notes on a Fugitive Poem by Gregory Corso," is as much an intriguing cultural studies discussion of period "men's magazines" such as Nugget, Swank, and Mayfair, which once published "serious literature, including poetry [that] cohabitated unapologetically with provocative photographs of nude women," as it is about this uncollected poem (81). "On Seeing Shelly's Paintings" is important to Corso scholarship in that it extols, like his other poems on artists such as Uccello, Bosch, and Kandisky, "Shelley's bold, potent 'Sensualism,' with its visual evocations of heightened experience, and scorns those artists ... who fail to arouse humanity from its sensual slumber and self-satisfaction" (83).
One of the things this reader likes about the brief essays in Pilgrims is that what they lack in length and depth they more often than not make up for in sparks of interest; that is, they prompt one to rummage through one's own shelves, to take notes in the margins of the books/poems under discussion while reading the essays. Stephenson's discussion of this "fugitive poem" prompted me to likewise pick up "a magazine from the early 1960s" that "I had the good fortune to acquire" (81) a few years ago, thus enabling me to explore firsthand the "alliance ... between men's magazines and the writers of the Beat Generation [as they] both sought to challenge traditional sanctions on the expression of sexuality ..." (84). Like Stephenson's 1962 copy of Scene, my March 1961 issue of Swank is itself an interesting historical document in that Kerouac published selections from his just-released Book of Dreams (City Lights, December 1961) in a special nineteen-page section titled "The Swinging Modern Scene." Also included are "two of the freshest poet-prose writers on the downtown scene--Diane Di [sic] Prima ... and Joel Oppenheimer" (51). Of more importance to Beat studies, though, is the inclusion of an essay by then twenty-two year old John Fles, former managing editor of the Chicago Review, titled "The Great Chicago Poetry Reading." Fles details the reading given by Ginsberg and Corso on the heels of the Chicago Review debacle which famously led to the founding of Big Table by Paul Carroll and other ex-Chicago Review editors. As one of the editors of Swank informs readers, "The true story [Fles] tells here rises into drama by its felt life and lack of phoniness. It also gives you some straight inside dope on the new literary movement that has shaken up the academies" (65). Indeed, as Stephenson tells readers in the closing of his Corso essay, "magazines such as Scene and its ilk helped in their time both to disseminate Beat writing and to make reading serious literature seem not an elitist or coterie activity, but an ordinary, pleasurable pursuit" (84-85).
Pilgrims is rounded out with two review essays on books by Beat predecessors and fellow-travelers Fitz Hugh Ludlow and James S. Lee. The first of these is a review of the 2011 reprint of The Hasheesh Eater: Being Passages from the Life of a Pythagorean (1857) by twenty-two-year-old New Yorker Ludlow, whose method of composition was seemingly similar to Kerouac's spontaneous bop prosody in that The Hasheesh Eater was "composed ... in urgent haste and without revision" while Ludlow was "enduring the after-effects" of the drug (91). Though Stephenson doesn't mention Williams S. Burroughs in the review, one can't help but see similarities to The Yage Letters as a "record of visions ... interspersed with passages of reflection and analysis" (90) in Ludlow's own drug experiments "as a vehicle of exploration, a tool of discovery, in that it can provide glimpses of 'hitherto unconceived modes and uncharted fields of spiritual being ..."' (93). Hints of the Burroughs to come also emerge in Stephenson's review of James S. Lee's The Underworld of the East: Being Eighteen Years' Actual Experiences of the Underworlds, Drug Haunts and Jungles of India, China and the Malay Archipelago (1937). While working as a miner in India in 1894, just twenty years before Burroughs' birth, Lee developed a morphine habit while suffering from malaria. Like the fictional William Lee "[i]ntrigued by drug-induced visions" in one of Burroughs' novels, James Lee "explores the narrow streets [of Calcutta and Benares] thronged with humans of every sort and condition--beggars, lepers, merchants, magicians [--] with keen interest in the strange and rich visual world of images deriving from the subliminal mind" (97). As with Burroughs in The Yage Letters, Lee, "[f]aced in the Sumatran jungle with Herculean endeavours ... sustains himself with his drugs and continues his experiments, gathering local plants and roots said by the natives to be psycho-active" (98). It is not until the brief essay following the review of The Underworld of the East ("A Note on James S. Lee") that Stephenson explicitly makes the Lee-Burroughs connections: "Lee's long-term use of drugs of various kinds, his travels in jungles in search of unknown psychoactive plants, his explorations of the lower strata of cities, his opposition to the regimentation of industrial civilization, his interest in paranormal phenomena, his independent mind, all seem to prefigure William S. Burroughs" (103).However, the real connection between Lee and the Beats, Stephenson tells us, rests in his "cosmic optimism" that has more in common with the Buddhism of Snyder, Kerouac, and Ginsberg than with Burroughs.
In the conclusion to The Daybreak Boys, Stephenson argues that the Beats engage in "primitive ritual and archaic thought and with archetypal patterns of consciousness" (172), aligning them with the shamanistic tradition which "counter[s] the negative energies of the age with positive energies ..." (185). The "Beat hero," he suggests, undergoes an initiation of "psychic transformation" to reach a "beatific state" of awareness and "universal liberation" (178-79). These are not new interpretations of Beat writers. But unlike in his earlier volume, Stephenson does not frame the essays in Pilgrims with a critical introduction and conclusion other than to briefly reiterate his earlier findings by suggesting the writers herein explored are "Pilgrims to Elsewhere" longing to "discover somewhere a haven, a heaven, a spiritual home" ("Preface" Pilgrims n.p.). If read as a companion volume to the earlier, more developed book, one does not so much need the conceptual framing; however, it would have been interesting and useful to read more about how Stephenson's overall understanding of the Beats has developed over the last twenty-five years--a twenty-five years of scholarship no doubt influenced by The Daybreak Boys, one of the first books to move away from Beat biography towards cultural contextualization and serious readings of the actual literature.
While Pilgrims to Elsewhere does not purport to break new scholarly ground, nor offer yet another historical retelling of the Beats, Stephenson's reflections add insight to the field of Beat studies, though as mentioned above, they are geared toward the general reader rather than to the specialist. In this regard, the real value of Stephenson's latest book lies in its potential for classroom application. Assigning the essays on "Supermarket in California," Kaufman's poetics, and the explanatory notes on The Dharma Bums, for example, can provide students new to the Beats with adequate background information, solid models for writing their own close readings, and useful examples of cultural studies approaches to help unpack the historical and cultural milieu in which the Beats were writing.
Jones, James T. Jack Kerouac's Duluoz Legend: The Mythic Form of an Autobiographical Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1999. Print.
McNally, Dennis. Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation and America. 1979. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.
Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. 1983. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994. Print.
Stephenson, Gregory. The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990. Print.
"The Swinging Modern Scene." Swank 8.1 (March 1961): 51-70. Print.
Todd Giles, Midwestern State University.
(1) For Kaufman's jazz aesthetic, see Lorenzo Thomas's "'Communicating by Horns': Jazz and Redemption in the Poetry of the Beats and the Black Arts Movement" in the African American Review 26.2 (Summer 1992): 291-298; and Amor Kohli's "Saxophones and Smothered Rage: Bob Kaufman, Jazz, and the Quest for Redemption" in Callaloo 25.1 (Winter 2002): 165-182.
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|Publication:||Journal of Beat Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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