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Women of the Beat Generation, review by Elsa Dorfman

by Brenda Knight

Foreword by Anne Waldman. Afterword by Ann Charters. Conari Press. Berkeley,CA 366pp. Also available on audio.

The term "Beat Generation" is applied to a lot of what happened in jazz, poetry, painting, fiction in the late fifties and through the sixties. It specifically applies to anything related to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso. The media has put a lot a lot of work and a lot of people under that beat umbrella on the basis of very loose and peripheral connections to Kerouac and his friends.

It is the same thing with this book. The title is about marketing and not fact. Eleven or twelve of the women were active in the poetry and painting scene on both coasts beginning in the 1950s. Very talented people, they are important because of their work first and their associations with particular men second: Helen Adam, Jane Bowles, Josephine Miles, Diane diPrima, Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Joanne Kyger, Denise Levertov, Anne Waldman,Ann Charters. Fourteen women in the volume, though they might have some talent, would not find their work in an anthology if it weren't for their involvement with Ginsberg or Kerouac or one of the other men on the scene.

The wide range in quality is probably because the book is schizophrenic in this way: part of it is devoted to the women writers who worked during the fifties and sixties on both coasts. And part of it is devoted to the women who DEVOTED THEMSELVES to the male poets of the same period. (or artists, musicians). There is some overlap, but the personal stories of each group of women are very different. Gregory Corso is described explaining the latter group: p.141 ....Wy were there so few women among the Beat writers? and (Gregory)Corso, suddenly utterly serious, leans forward and says: "There were women, they were there, I knew them, their families put them in institutions, they were given electric shock. In the '50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up. \

Though Knight included two or three women who seemed truly peripheral to me, she made one glaring and inexplicable omission: Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who during the sixties and early seventies was married to Robert Creeley. She would have been a fabulous interview because she is wise and charismatic. She knew everyone, went everywhere, saw everything. Always a painter and writer, her writing career took off after she and Creeley parted. Now she teaches at the Jack Kerouac School of Poetics. Knight also neglected to mention, even in passing , Lawrence Ferlinghetti's wife and the wife or wives of Gregory Corso.

Each woman is profiled in a chapter that ends with a selection of her work. These poems and chapters from novels and collections that are out of print or hard to find make the book very useful. However, Knight concludes her book with a totally unnecessary recollection by the poet, Ted Joans. It's completely out of place and says nothing. Did Knight want the thesis of her book validated by a MAN who had BEEN THERE?

I was the editorial secretary at Grove Press in 1959 and knew most of the East Coast women profiled in this book, some well, some not so well. I envied them all. I wanted to be in the inner circle too, Close to all those geniuses. In her introduction, Anne Waldman, who,born in 1945 is the youngest writer in the collection, describes growing up in Greenwich Village, in the early sixties: p.x We benefitted from the examples and trials of young women who had struggled to be creative and assertive before us, and we were certainly aware of the exciting artistic and liberal heritage of our New York City environs and yet many of us fell into the same retrograde traps. Being dominated by relationships with men--letting our own talents lag, following their lead--which could result in drug dependencies, painful abortions, alienation from family and friends.,,I knew int reresting creative women who became junkies for their boyfriends, who stole for their boyfriends, who concealed their poetry and artistic aspirations, who slept around to be popular, who had serious eating disorders, who concealed their unwanted pregnancies raising money for abortions on their own or who put the child up for adoption.....Who never felt they owned or could appreciate their own bodies. I knew women living secret or double lives because love and sexual desire for another woman was ananthema. I knew women in daily therapy because their fathers had abused them, or women who got sent away to mental hospitals or special schools because they'd taken a black lover. Some ran away from home. some committed suicide. ......This book is a testament, primarily, to the lives of these women, ....what comes through is the searing often poignant hint or glimpse of an original--often lonely -tangible intellectus==a bright, shining, eager mind.

Ann Charters,in her Afterword, catches something of the same sense of loss, escape and survival. She was actually Peter Orlovsky's date at the second public reading of HOWL by Allen Ginsberg in Berkeley, CA (where she met Sam Charters). She went on to get her ph.d and to write among other books, a biography of Kerouac. She now teaches at the University of Connecticut.

For my friend Carolyn, the experience wasn't a golden memory. Like Naomi Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath, she was a casualty of her time. A dozen years after graduating from Cal, depressed by the direction her life had taken in an unhappy marriage, my friend committed suicide in Berkeley. Had she lived and managed to continue painting and writing, she might have been one of the women celebrated in this anthology. Survive! Survive! ...I may have inherited her cottage,but I never managed to achieve her cool. The risks of her bohemian lifestyle were so apparent that I never considered hanging out with Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Cassady, older men who were Orlovsky's friends. ...p.338 p.340

Knight collects her stories in an admiring, flatfooted tone. She doesn't seem to catch the nuances that Charters and Waldman express. She is a FAN, a FAN of the BEAT MEN, not a fan of these women disassociated from the men. She is wistful for the era. (About a selection in Kerouac's Desolation Angels she writes, p.175, "I hate Jack's woman-hatred, hate it, mourn it, understand , and finally forgive." She can't hear Janine Pommy Vega, who had a long relationship with Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg's lover,too. She lived with Herbert Huncke, and at times with Elise Cowen. With both of them, she took care of Orlovsky's brother Lafcadio. p.230 ...Peters letters came....But I was angry that they hadn't invited me to travel with them. Is that how it was in the world of the poets? I thought I'd rather meet painters and muscians.

She doesn't wonder about the women, all smart and all eager to help the men with their projects. (She doesn't mention that Elise Cowen typed Kaddish for Ginsberg. Or describe how much work Diane DiPrima did on Floating Bear with LeRoi Jones or how much work Hettie Jones did on YUGEN with Jones.) She doesn't wonder what it was about American suburban life in the late fifties that propelled young women educated at Sweet Briar, Swarthmore, Bennington, Barnard to think they had to latch onto creative men if they wanted a creative life, who couldn't figure out that they were entitled to a creative life themselves. She doesn't go beyond the quote of Diane DiPrima, a pivotal presence, writer, and editor:

p.124 Don't forget,however great your visioning and your inspiration,you need the techniques of the craft and there's nowhere, really to get them ....they are passed on person to person and back then the male naturally passed them on to the male. I think maybe I was one of the first women to break through that in having deep conversations with Charles Olson and Frank O'Hara.

Unquestioning Knight describes how Eileen Kaufman, " an up and coming journalist, heading to the top of her profession, dropped everything to fully embrace the Beat philosophy, poetics, and lifestylez" and marry Bob Kaufman.

p.114 When I met Bob Kaufman, King of North Beach, my values changed overnight. I had been a greedy, mercenary career girl whose only object was to get it while you can. But the very night I met Bob, I could see these values totally changing. When Bob read "African Dream" to me, I knew I had met a genius. And so I knew at once what my life would be: Tempestuous, Adventurous, Passionate, but always new experiences. I reached out for Bob Kaufman, the man and his poetry. And he made my life a shambles. It was not as though I didn't ask for it. I knew at a glance and after one night that this man could create my life or destroy it. The life I had known was in ashes, and like the Phoenix, my new life had begun.

Nor does Knight compare the poetry scene on the East Coast to the scene on the West Coast, though in the material she has collected it seems that the West Coast was a more hospitable place for women. Robert Duncan was a unique prescense and mentor there. She does n't remark on Denise Levertov's Englishness or analyze how that set her apart from the American women, none of whom thought she was a genius. (Characteristically,at twelve, Levertov sent her poems to T.S. Eliot, who sent her a two page reply. At seventeen, she had a poem published in Poetry Quarterly and was corresponding with Herbert Read and Kenneth Rexroth, her American mentor.)

The first four chapters on Helen Adam, Jane Bowles, Madeline Gleason, and Josephine Miles are set apart and titled " The Precursors." Short though they are, it is good to have this biographical information and small selections in one place. Adams, Gleason and Miles lived in and around San Francisco and were good friends of Robert Duncan. They were instrumental in starting and nurturing the San Francisco poetry scene, organizing readings and running small presses. Miles, born in 1911, was the first female tenured at U.C. Berkeley.

Maybe everyone who reads WROB knows this already, but I didn't know that Jane Bowles was the writer and Paul Bowles the composer and protege of Aaron Copeland when they met eachother. P.19

The high point of the couple's creative partnership probably came when her play In the Summer House was staged on Broadway with an original score by Paul, who also scored the original productions of many of Tennesseee Williams' plays. He was inspired to take up writing when he saw his wife's success and proved to b both skilled and prolific. Whe his success as a writer eclipsed Jane's, it seemed to destroy something inside her. The ease with which he wrote was a source of endless frustration for her, because she always worked very hard at her stories. Writing became so agonizing that she once claimed to be dying of writer's block.

I wish that Knight had mourned the waste of talent and the tough roads that some of the women in her book had to follow in the decades after the fifties and sixties. There's a lot of heartache in these stories. A lot of tragedy explained partly by the expectations women had for themselves during the period. Even some of the strong women like Hettie Cohen and Diane DiPrima had complicated careers and long struggles juggling children and their writing. Joyce Johnson only finally wrote her important memoir Minor Characters thirty years after her relationship with Jack Kerouac. Hettie Jones' How I Became Hettie Jones was published in 1990 (and reissued in 1996). It was a long time before Brenda Fraser became an expert in agriculture policy and established herself and her family in Ann Arbor, MI. (Unblinkingly, Knight describes the murder of Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs. p.52 On September 6, 1951, Joan and Bill were at a party. Everyone had been drinking gin for hours when Bill announced that it was time for the William Tell act. Joan put a water glass on her head and turned her face, saying that she couldn't stand the sight of blood. Bill, a crack shot, took aim from about six feet away. She died instantly, not yet thirty years old....Bill was able to keep himself out of too much trouble with the help of a good lawyer ....and spent only thirteen days in jail).

I've come to the conclusion that one of the big reasons that "the "Beat Generation" holds such a fascination for the media and for the rest of us is because it is the nostalgic tale of a white boys' gang. And it is the last simple white guy gang. And implicitly understood, it's a white guy gang that wasn't good to its women and lucky them, back then the women didn't complain much. After "the Beat Generation" society became complicated. Maybe women wouldn't take quite as much. There was all kinds of music and many guy gangs for the media to focus on. We began to use the word dysfunctional, abusive, and exploitive to describe some of the behavior we found charming in the fifties and sixties. And women began to be geniuses themselves.

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