Allen Ginsburg, possibly penning "Howl."

Courtesy of The New York Times

Allen Ginsburg, possibly penning "Howl."

February 18, 2016

MEISEL | Addressing a Canonical Conspiracy

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And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead is a documentary about the American Beat poet Bob Kaufman, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Billy Woodberry. It was first released in Portugal last fall, but it will start showing at the MoMA this Friday. Although I haven’t seen it, what I can glean from reviews is that it is an honest attempt to make a substantial, non-fictional account of Kaufman’s life — which was a tough one in many ways. This profound aspect of the film is enough to merit approval, or at the very least, foster significant interest. Bob Kaufman’s poems are unique. They are at various moments prophetic, rapturous, vengeful, ecstatic, psychedelic and revelatory. Most of all, though, they’re almost totally unknown.

It’s likely that only a few people reading this piece will have heard of Bob Kaufman. He often took to composing poems in his head, but he didn’t take well to writing them down. And when the pieces were written down, they were transcribed by Kaufman’s wife Eileen. He lived for 61 years, yet he only published three volumes of original poetry. His last published work, a comprehensive collection of all his writing, was released 20 years ago. Kaufman did not seem to care about reputation or attracting audiences. American and English literary establishments awarded him no laurels and granted him no recognition. Readers of the Beat generation — a literary movement still widely read today — have almost forgotten him completely, due in no small part to the fact that he was a black man. No academic has taken the effort to conduct a thorough, full-length study of his life and work, and no significant trace of him exists in our popular knowledge of the Beats or of the vital poetry of the ’50s and ’60s. The only reason I’ve heard of him is because of a blog post by poet Jericho Brown. Meanwhile, Allen Ginsburg has been portrayed on screen by 21 different actors, including James Franco and Daniel Radcliffe; Sylvia Plath has been portrayed by eight, including Gwyneth Paltrow. I can find “Howl” and “Ariel” at my local Barnes & Noble. Bob Kaufman? I can’t find him anywhere besides the Internet. He’s a ghost.

All of this is a reflection of the canons we keep. It’s a matter of what becomes a “classic” in any particular culture or subculture. Often times our cultural catalogues of good books rarely have anything to do with how good the books actually are. When they do, these books become highly selective, even though the criteria for this selectivity never relies 100 percent on merit. It is no different among alternative canons and collections, ones which were challenging and risky for their times.

The Beats were subversive. They pushed progressive ideals into the space of poetry and language. But there’s no need for me to tell you about their importance. You could read one of the many academic works that attempt to understand the Beat generation through their literature. Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg line the shelves of those histories. Pour through the archives. Explore treasured letters and facsimile editions, all by a beloved group of experimentalists who refused to compromise themselves. Go check out the movies, dig into the myths and rumors of all this edgy literature. What you won’t find is any case study of Bob Kaufman. You will find no letters, no dedicated scholarship and no memories. Instead, you will discover a disappearance — a vanishing into thin air — compounded by the political and social norms the Beats attempted to fight and which we (the cosmopolitan consumers of literature with oh-so-little time on our hands!) have reproduced today.

Why do we neglect Kaufman? He was one of the founders of Beatitude magazine alongside other key figures, including Ginsberg. There’s a somewhat credible legend that he even coined the term “Beatnik.” He’s one of the best and most singular American poets of the post-war era. Why has even the supposed counter-culture forgotten him? His revolutionary work hangs on to the edges of the map. It has taken sizable labor from people like Billy Woodberry just to begin its restoration, solely because we as readers have overlooked him, or rather, have never even bothered to look for him in the first place.

When time passes, inevitably leaving most works of art behind, what do we take with us? What do we believe speaks for us, speaks to us? These questions are important, if a bit too romantic. I imagine plenty of people consider them in some shape or form. However, what we often fail to think about is how these works of art have reached us in the first place. When we do stop to think about how we first encountered certain books or movies or music, we should understand that whoever is handing them to us — whether that’s a community, a person, or a canon —possesses a direct bearing on whatever art or entertainment they might show us. Art may not be inherently political, but the way we digest and consume it certainly is. I’m not sure how to adjust the nature of our consumption, so for the time being, I guess we’ll have to rely on artists like Billy Woodberry to make a committed effort for the benefit of (hopefully) all of us.

In honor of this incredible poet, I will end with a few lines from Kaufman’s poem “All the Ships That Never Sailed.” This piece was the first thing Kaufman said after a 10 year vow of silence, which began with John F. Kennedy’s assassination and ended with the conclusion of the Vietnam War:

“My body once covered with beauty is now a museum of betrayal.

This part remembered because of that

one’s touch.

This part remembered for that one’s kiss-

Today I bring it back

And let you live forever.”

Stephen Meisel is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at smeisel@cornellsun.com. Appearances appears alternate Fridays this semester. 

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