Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Red Rooster

Texts of the songs discussed follow the essay.

Willie Dixon’s song “The Red Rooster,” particularly in Howlin’ Wolf’s version, is a classic blues. Resting on a rich foundation of earlier lyrics, the song is minimal, underdetermined, almost purely allusive, yet its power was sufficient to propel a number of versions to hit status, including covers by Big Mama Thornton, Sam Cooke, the Doors, the Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, and many others.

The song relates only the most limited information about the rooster, all in the past tense: he was too lazy to crow; nonetheless, he kept the barnyard either productively humming along or “upset in every way.” (Transcriptions and/or performances differ.) His roaming causes dogs to bark. This enigmatic description seems unintelligible, yet the tune has been a hit for a goodly list of artists. The underlying tradition reinforced by extra-textual performance elements constitutes a powerful and eloquent statement of erotic energy and ambivalence.

Old country blues used farmyard imagery with archaic roots, which sometimes persisted in the later amplified music. The broadest stratum underlying the rooster figure is a simple association with fertility and sexuality. Since at least the seventeenth century (perhaps much earlier) the word cock has denoted the male sexual organ. [1] Combined with the rooster’s (conventionally masculine) self-assertion amounting at times to pugnacity, this pure sexuality renders the bird an efficient embodiment of masculine bragging. These characteristics have made the animal a national symbol for Portugal and France as well as a powerful image in Dixon’s song.

From the unashamed boasting in heroic poetry through the erotic gab of medieval France [2] to the general assertion by the hip-hop duo Outkast in "Wailin’" “I use my gift of gab to boast and brag in every line,” ego assertion has frequently been prominent in poetry. Simply claiming the time of the audience or reader is egoistic for every artist. In racist America, when other forms of self-aggrandizement may have eluded many African-Americans, power as a lover remained always available.

Chaucer’s Chantecleer made do with seven wives, but many poultry farmers suggest a ratio of twelve to fifteen hens for every rooster, giving the rooster a harem that might constitute an extravagant fantasy for a human. In “The Red Rooster” the primal power of the male is said to be required to return peace to the barnyard. The hounds cry out like Nature itself in misery during his absence.

In the oldest parallel song, Charley Patton’s “Banty Rooster Blues (1929), the semiotic field associated with the rooster in American blues is established. The rooster is here defined as vigilant, enjoying power over women and the ensuing access to sexual pleasure without making himself vulnerable. The formulation would be shocking were it not shot through with self-reflective doubt and satire.

The details are worth exploring as this text is fundamental to the imagery’s later development. The rooster is, first of all, vigilant. Just as he watches over his hens from a high vantage point and warns of approaching danger, he can do the same for the singer. But ambiguities have already proliferated, concealed by this simple description of a common animal’s behavior. The rooster is posted to the “backdoor,” though the front would be the ordinary approach for a stranger. Just as Dixon sang of the Little Red Rooster, Patton specifies a bantam bird, known for combativeness, sometimes considered comic for its belligerence combined with small stature. The size is a clue to the singer’s undercutting irony.

The man of empty words is then compared to a rooster who does not crow. The singer may be bragging of his superiority to such men. In performing on stage, he is certainly crowing. Still, the persona’s identification with the rooster suggests that he may, at times at least, be unable to deliver on his proud promises.

The next verse turns to the female, comparing a woman who will not do what he, the speaker, says to a hen who does not cackle when she lays. Though this line may not represent a functional agricultural value, the point is clear. The woman is to obey the man. The singer’s point is underscored as the line “What you want with a man, when he won't do nothin’ he say?” is succeeded by “What you want with a woman, when she won’t do nothin’ I say?”

The will to power is so apparent as to be slightly ridiculous. In return for this absolute loyalty he offers nothing whatever, no support or commitment. She can expect to be left with nothing to show for her affair but his portrait on the wall, and inquiries about her vanished lover.

For the moment, however, they can enjoy each other. Sexual contact is here expressed in fishing imagery. Patton’s line seems to be original, but the general area is marked by such classics as Henry Thomas’ exceedingly sophisticated and witty “Fishing Blues” (1928) which expresses through the imagery of angling a delicate complaint to an adulterous man: “I bet your life, your lovin' wife,/ Can catch more fish than you.” In Robert Petway’s “Catfish Blues” (1941) the singer imagines himself a catfish with his choice of women’s hooks on which to experience his Liebestod. In Patton’s song the fisherman expects a catch due to “the help I got.” This surely seems more to refer to his sexual equipment, analogous to the “hook in the water,” and the “cork on top,” rather than to his aide, the banty, long forgotten in the first stanza. Just as Thomas had assured his interlocutor that “any fish bite, you've got good bait” and Petway never doubted that the ladies would be after him, Patton’s appeal is to nature. How can a natural man fail?

The song concludes with the lover associated with a faithful dog. He knows the dog’s bark, and he recognizes the woman during sexual activity in the dark. Patton has provided the key element in the rooster’s semiotic field only in the last stanza: the promise of ample sexuality, as available as one’s faithful hound.

Succeeding versions added little to the meanings clustered around the rooster theme in the blues. Memphis Minnie’s song “If you see my rooster (please drive him home)” (1936) provides the hen’s perspective in a lament for the wandering rooster. His absence has led to an Arthurian wasteland (no eggs) that can only be resolved through the return of the heroic cock. Margie Day’s 1950 jump version of “Little Red Rooster” adds a more possessive hen’s advice: “clip his wings.” [4]

These earlier songs formed the necessary context in which Willie Dixon’s belated electrified rendition can have meaning. Nearly all Dixon’s lines are derived from antecedent songs, yet his presentation is so elliptical as to puzzle the uninitiated. The rooster is a male ego preening, strutting, and signifying, searching to reconcile his wandering ways with his pursuit of love. The first four lines of Howlin’ Wolf’s recording of Dixon’s song employ Charley Patton’s conceit, but with a new trope. Whereas for Patton the lazy rooster is a negative example of a big talker with no action, he becomes for Dixon a pasha-like bird, enjoying his mastery of his domain. The curiously opposed and alternate hearings of Dixon’s line six balance so nicely that it matters little whether the barnyard is “stirred up” or quietly moving along.

The wailing dogs of Dixon’s next verses likewise derive from Patton’s imagery. In the older song the dog’s bark is associated with the familiar body of the beloved, while in Dixon’s lyric that meaning is turned inside out. For Dixon the dogs are the clue in sound to the rooster’s having left his barnyard domesticity to go “on the prowl.” Their howling is a haunting indeterminate symbol, ominous and potent, still inhabited by traces of the earlier lines. As a soundtrack the dogs express the exciting but dangerous sense of the rooster “on the make.” The final stanza only reemphasizes this drive to reestablish peace using Memphis Minnie’s motif, asking that the rooster be driven home in the general cause of the household’s serenity.

Willie Dixon drew on the earlier popular and folk material as well as the lived experience of a generation recently come to Chicago from Southern farms. Much of his original audience had first-hand experience of the proprietary behavior of roosters toward both females and territory. They appreciated the parallel with human actions, both those which might appear strong, heroic, and protective, and those which might seem laughable. His song is truly intertextual in that it can hardly be understood without reference to the composer’s sources and influences. Its lasting popularity

1. This association has led to the American preference of the word rooster. Related terms for penis include bird, surviving only in the expression “flipping the bird,” pecker, oiseau (or zizi) in French, uccelo in Italian, and countless others. The male chicken meaning of cock was in English reinforced by the “upward tilt” meaning. Oddly, through the adoption of a seventeenth century British usage of cock as a sort of passive obscene verb – “to want cocking, ” “I mean to get cocked.” – the word came to signify the female organ in Afro-American usage.

The bird is conflated with the human face and with the male organ in the priapus gallinaceus in which the erect penis is the nose/beak and the balls are the wattles/cheeks. One of these in the Vatican museum is labeled “savior of the world”).
On the other hand Marija Gimbutas documents the widespread cult of bird-headed goddesses in the Neolithic era. See her The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe. Other animals might be used to similar effect, cf. for instance Slim Harpo’s “King Bee,” or the many songs using snakes and catfish.

2. The "Gab" as a Latent Genre in Medieval French Literature: Drinking and Boasting in the Middle Ages by John L. Grigsby.

4. Written by Edward and James Griffin and performed by Margie Day and the Griffin Brothers. Other related songs include Taj Mahal’s “Little Red Hen Blue”: “Well the little red hen said to the little red rooster/ Why don't you come 'round here like you used to?” and the anonymous humorous version.

“Oh mister Rooster!” said the little red hen,
“I haven't felt this way, since a god knows when...
but a big gruff voice said this ain't no Rooster.
And the little red hen knew the gander had goosed her.

The Red Rooster/Little Red Rooster by Dixon, performed by Howlin’ Wolf, Big Mama Thornton, performed later by Sam Cooke (with Ray Charles), the Doors, the Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, and Dixon himself.

I had a little red rooster
Too lazy to crow ‘fore day
I had a little red rooster
Too lazy to crow 'fore day
He kept ev’rything in the barnyard
Upset in every way (elsewhere recorded as “Eager settin’ a-ready to lay,” (picked up everything in the barnyard/either settled or ready to lay)

You know the dogs begin to bark
And the, the hounds
They begin to howl
You know the dogs they begin to bark
And the, the hounds
They begin to howl
You know my little red rooster’s gone
Know the little red rooster's on the prowl

(harmonica & instrumental)

Now, if you see my little red rooster
Somebody, please drive him home
Now, if you seen my little red rooster
Somebody, ple-eee-ase run ‘em home
There ain’t been no peace in the barnyard
Since my little red rooster been gone.

1929 Banty Rooster Blues (Patton)

I'm gonna buy me a banty, put him at my backdoor
I'm gonna buy me a banty, put him at my backdoor
So when he see a stranger a-comin’, he’ll flap his wings and crow

What you want with a rooster, he won't crow ‘fore day?
What you want with a rooster, he won't crow ‘fore day?
What you want with a man, when he won't do nothin’ he say?

What you want with a hen won’t, cackle when she lays?
What you want with a hen won’t, cackle when she lays?
What you want with a woman, when she won’t do nothin' I say?

Ah, take my picture, hang it up in Jackson wall
Ah, take my picture, hang it up in Jackson wall
Anybody asks you “What about it,” tell 'em “That's all I saw”

My hook’s in the water, and my cork’s on top
My hook’s in the water, and my cork’s on top
How can I lose, Lord, with the help I got

I know my dog anywhere I hear him bark
I know my dog anywhere I hear him bark
I can tell my rider, if I feel her in the dark

1936 If you see my rooster (please drive him home) (Memphis Minnie)

f you see my rooster
Please run him on back home
If you see my rooster
Please run him on back home
I haven't found no eggs in my basket
Since my rooster been gone

I heard my rooster crowing
This morning just about the break of day
I heard my rooster crowing
This morning just about the break of day

I guess that was the time he was making his getaway
I just found out how come my hens won't lay
I just found out how come my hens won't lay
Every time I look around my rooster have done gone away

Now play it, Bob
Tell me 'bout my rooster

I've got too many hens
For not to have no roosters on my yard
I've got too many hens
For not to have no roosters on my yard
And I don't know what's the matter
Something have done got 'em barred

Now, Bob, if you see my rooster
Please run him on back home
Now, Bob, if you see my rooster
Please run him on back home
I haven't found no eggs in my basket
Since my rooster been gone

jump version 1950 Little Red Rooster Edward and James Griffin Margie Day and the Griffin Brothers

Got a little red rooster and, man, how he can crow! (2x)
He's the boss of the barnyard any old place he goes.

He's a tiny little fella but he sure can strut his stuff, (2x)
And the way he loves me, man, he ain't no bluff.

If you want your red rooster and you want him all alone,
Just keep him off the road where these old hens like to roam,
'Cause your little red rooster may seem...(?),
But as soon as your back's turned, he'll make a fool of you.

If you got a good rooster, better clip his wings.
These old hens will get him and give him diamond rings.
Little red rooster, ain't gonna let him go.
I done clipped his wings; man, he can't fly no mo'.

Rimbaud's "The Lice-Pickers"

Rimbaud’s poem opens with a shocking line and continues to disturb to the end, yet the form – the rhymes and regular syllable count – allows his sensational material to be delivered with a measure of grace and irony. Merely writing about lice outraged traditional advocates of literary propriety, but the inclusion of parasites in a highly eroticized tableau multiplied the offense immeasurably. In the end both the steamy excitement (the charming fingers, the wish to kiss) and the disgusting details (sucked saliva, the sound of crushed insects) are subsumed in what looks very much like a drive for union with Ultimate Reality.

The all-too-human child his face covered with open sores, like Job an icon of suffering, might well seek the oblivion of dreams, but that psychic deliverance is realized only through the covertly (or unconsciously) sensual actions of the ministering ladies which make a powerful impression on the hypersexualized boy. “L’air bleu baigne un fouillis de fleurs” is of a piece with the “l’essaim blanc des rêves indistincts.” The poet does gain access to that transported realm, contained within the experience, figured as a taste, of the sound of the ladies’ breathing which to him seems “longs miels végétaux et rosés.” The same enchanted jouissance recurs in “les silences parfumés,” “grises indolences,” each emptied yet heightened.

The climax of the piece is the child’s submission to his Castle of Indolence, the “vin de la Paresse,” which is represented as a “soupir d’harmonica qui pourrait délirer.” This culminating image includes both the melody of the delicate music (a “glass harmonica,” I understand, like Mozart knew, not a mouth organ) and the delirium (corresponding to the earlier lesions) as the child finds that eros, even in artistic representation, as a succession of images, has the power to bring one outside oneself into the undifferentiated consciousness (because nothing, Nirvana, thus everything). Or nearly to that point, since the urge to weep recurs to him repeatedly, rhythmically, like the plangent waves rolling to shore and receding. What a poignant conclusion!

A number of critics take pains about the biographical details that may be associated with this poem. Since it seems as much about me as about young Rimbaud, I do not comment on that element.

Keeping the rhymes has required sacrifices, but that calculus cannot be evaded. The specifics of the translator’s decisions are of interest only, I think, to other translators, who then feel constrained from using similar wording. To my mind I have decided to be faithful to the original far more times than I have taken a liberty.

The Lice Pickers

When the child’s face, so full of red raw sores,
implores the pale swarm of vaporous dreams,
two great charming sisters come to his door
with their frail fingers and silver nails’ gleam.

They seat him in the casement window chair,
open to a blue air bath where scent lingers.
He feels through his dew-laden heavy hair,
the touch of fine, fearsome, and charming fingers.

To him their cringing breathing makes a tune
with long honied notes vegetal, rosehips,
and every now and then a whistling croon,
the wish to kiss or suck spittle from lip.

He hears the beating of their black eyelids
in perfumed hush. Electric hands so nice
crackle sweet amid grey indolence hid
as regal nails bring death to little lice.

Then in him rises up the wine of Sloth,
the breath of a mad harmonica’s sigh.
The child feels, along with their slow caress,
come and go without end, the wish to cry.

Les Chercheuses de Poux by Arthur Rimbaud

Quand le front de l’enfant, plein de rouges tourmentes,
Implore l’essaim blanc des rêves indistincts,
Il vient près de son lit deux grandes sœurs charmantes
Avec de frêles doigts aux ongles argentins.

Elles assoient l’enfant auprès d’une croisée
Grande ouverte où l’air bleu baigne un fouillis de fleurs
Et, dans ses lourds cheveux où tombe la rosée,
Promène leurs doigts fins, terribles et charmeurs.

Il écoute chanter leurs haleines craintives
Qui fleurent de longs miels végétaux et rosés
Et qu’interrompt parfois un sifflement, salives
Reprises sur la lèvre ou désirs de baisers.

Il entend leurs cils noirs battant sous les silences
Parfumés ; et leurs doigts électriques et doux
Font crépiter, parmi ses grises indolences,
Sous leurs ongles royaux, la mort des petits poux.

Voilà que monte en lui le vin de la Paresse,
Soupir d’harmonica qui pourrait délirer :
L’enfant se sent , selon la lenteur des caresses,
Sourdre et mourir sans cesse un désir de pleurer.

The Legacy of the Beats

Numerous times, I have heard people say, “Reading On the Road changed my life.” They go on to tell of going hitch-hiking, taking LSD, or changing majors from sociology to comparative religion. What have these alterations to do with literature? Might not similar changes have followed a new lover, or perhaps just failing a course? Though I avoided that particular confessional declaration as a cliché, like many clichés, it bears some truth, including in my own case. As an adolescent, though I was reading the range of English poetry as well as great gulps of others, I admit to having read the Beats with a special attention and excitement. To some extent, this may have arisen from the sensational dope/sex straight and gay/madness revelations, but I was reacting also to the style of my own time, a novel style, one that has had a major influence on American writing since. In his “Notes for Howl and Other Poems” Allen Ginsberg refers to his poetry as “angelical ravings,” an expression that enigmatically but precisely expresses the specific distinguishing hip sensibility associated with Beat writing.

One must return to the scornful pop culture references to “beatniks” and dismissive reviews from not just the academy, but almost the entire literary establishment (which did extend beyond ivied walls), to realize the impact of Donald M. Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960 which created a new canon, a sort of canon of the anti-canonical. It is notorious that the more conventional major anthology New Poets of England and America edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson (with an introduction by Robert Frost), though it was published only three years earlier, had not a single author in common with Allen’s. Today nearly all of Allen’s poets have become accepted; many are featured in standard textbooks.

Norman Podhoretz’ claim in 1958 that the Beats embody a bitter anti-intellectualism – he even implicates them in the scourge of the fifties, the juvenile delinquent – now seems utterly misguided. [1] It is almost as though Podhoretz had developed his view from the reportage of Life Magazine rather than from the Beat literary output.

His notions, though, coincided with the attitudes of most Americans to whom the poetry and fiction that emerged from the Beat scene was far less striking than their reputed lifestyle: high on dope of various sorts, ecstatic with a range of sexual activities, many transgressive, yet claiming insight into the heart of things and holy visions of the sort that had gone out of style in the church only to reappear among artists reclaiming their vatic role. Indeed, in the Romantic view of these writers the semi-criminal and the beatified were likely to coincide. Clellon Holmes write in 1952, “the problem of modern life is essentially a spiritual problem; and that capacity for sudden wisdom which people who live hard and go far possess, are assets and bear watching.” [2]

Contrary to what Podhoretz had heard, the Beats gave traditional learning its due. Corso had read voraciously and then loitered about Harvard while Kerouac and Ginsberg were well-educated and took pains to establish their literary lineage. The counter-cultural tradition featured scholars like Rexroth, Blackburn, and Gary Snyder. Most of the Beats accepted professorial posts before their days were done, and for decades they have had their own university in Naropa. At best, the schema that balances the reserved academic against the Bohemian avant-garde polarity is reductive.

Furthermore, the field of poetry in the late forties was by no means homogeneous. Perhaps the most clearly “academic” group was associated with the New Criticism: the reactionary Southern Fugitives or Agrarians, Yvor Winters (apart from his earliest poems), and a host of associate professors with chapbooks. For the most part, these writers rejected ideals of sincerity and self-expression, preferring exacting formal values. To the New Critics who dominated literary studies in my own undergraduate years, authorial intention and affect were irrelevant, as the poem was a purely aesthetic object, valued for its formal qualities.

At the same time as apolitical or overtly reactionary views governed most small quarterlies and poetry journals, a rump faction remained of revolutionary more-or-less Marxist poets like Kenneth Fearing, Walter Lowenfels, and John Beecher who once sold stacks of books, then swelled enthusiastic anthologies, but who were already largely forgotten in the early days of McCarthyism.

The experimental and avant-garde traditions continued in Surrealism, Jackson MacLow, Armand Schwerner, and a wide range of others as well as in High Modernism itself which employed experimental techniques such as fragmentation and field composition. Pound and Eliot were still writing in this vein, and Zukofsky and Charles Olson after them.

Meanwhile the Confessional poets like Lowell and Berryman were setting out their grave self-revelations, albeit couched in tight rhyme and rhythm at first, and the New York poets associated with abstract expressionism wrote expressive and personal verses that could seem like spontaneous improvisation.

By far the most popular English poet of the era during which the Beats emerged was Dylan Thomas. If the only choices are to be rebellion or tradition, his position is problematic. His Collected Poems, 1934–1952, elicited immense critical praise and Philip Toynbee was not out of step with many others when his review in The Observer declared Thomas “the greatest living poet in the English language.” Thomas’ demanding craftsmanship had calculated in detail the impact of each extraordinary rhythm and every plosive consonant. He had served his apprenticeship writing for the Ministry of Information during the war and for the notoriously staid BBC afterward.

Yet this same writer was also associated with the New Apocalyptic group (though he disclaimed a connection) which owed much to Surrealism. He was a celebrity bad boy more famous for his drinking than his lyrics and known (like Hemingway) to millions who had never read a line of his work. Skilled at oral performance, he was a “personality” as much as an artist, at the time the only poet who could pack halls of every city and college town for readings.

In his oddly ambivalent essay “Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation” Kenneth Rexroth focuses on “two great dead juvenile delinquents . . . Charlie Parker and Dylan Thomas” whom he portrays as desperately trying to save themselves with gestures of pure art, both ultimately overcome by “the horror of the world.” [3] To him both are virtuosos left without hope when they found that pure manipulation of form could not enlighten or liberate. His epithet of “disengaged” is not only startling when applied to two such apparently passionate artists; it is, in fact, a condemnation of Beat poetry by its own midwife, the producer of the 1955 Gallery Six reading.

To simplify and avoid questions of definition, I shall take Rexroth at his word when he limits the Beats to Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Corso. [4] Far from being “know-nothing Bohemians,” the most likely descriptive category for this group is neo-Romantic. Their privileging of spontaneity, directness, sincerity, interest in the vernacular, sympathy for children and the underclass, looseness of form, visionary claims, revolutionary political views, even drug use; all are directly traceable to the circles around Wordsworth and Shelley. Corso actually managed to have his body buried in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery alongside Keats and Shelley. [5]

Kerouac was arch-Romantic in citing as “an American masterpiece,” “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw,” and his literary model a very long December 17, 1950 letter from Neal Cassady sometimes called the Joan Anderson letter. “I got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me, all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed . . . I remembered also Goethe’s admonition, well Goethe’s prophecy that the future literature of the West would be confessional in nature . . . Cassady also began his early youthful writing with attempts at slow, painstaking, and all-that-crap craft business, but got sick of it like I did, seeing it wasn’t getting out his guts and heart the way it felt coming out . . . We also did so much fast talking between the two of us, on tape recorders, way back in 1952, and listened to them so much, we both got the secret of LINGO in telling a tale and figured that was the only way to express the speed and tension and ecstatic tomfoolery of the age.” [6]

Ginsberg’s phrase “angelical ravings” combines two elements that might at first seem incompatible. He promises his poetry is “angelical,” renewing for his age the old prophetic role of the poet, dominant in all traditional and oral societies and recalled by medieval Christian apologists, then by the Romantics, Whitman, and fin-de-siècle aesthetes. The promise is that poetry provides access to a level of truth unavailable by other means. Whether the information the poet passes along is said to derive from a god or goddess, a muse, a shamanic journey, a vision, the unconscious, or another privileged source, it is thought to be revelation. All theories that literature can provide a unique storehouse of information must rest on some such claim of a specialized artistic insight.

The second term in Ginsberg’s formula “ravings” emphasizes the gap between the the hip and the square. To the Romantic the artist is alienated, misunderstood, likely to appear “crazy” to most members of society. Of course, in a sense the marginalization of art means that one must forego the conventional rewards of salary and prestige to practice poetry, and, since the Romantic era, artists have increasingly embraced an identity as counter-cultural.

The value of such a special perspective, varying from the norm, was recognized with the arrival of the twentieth century and Du Bois’ theory of double-consciousness. Even apart from issues of race, the last hundred years has seen the proliferation of a series of ironic aesthetic systems that likewise see phenomena both in the conventional way and in another: the camp, the kitsch, and the hip. Each assumes that most will decode the object in one way, but that some will have a more complex reaction, containing but not limited by that first concept.

The hip cultivated a sort of double consciousness in which any experience can seem both utterly inconsequential and profoundly meaningful. This simultaneously detached and deeply engaged regard for everyday reality is also called goofing (see Philip Whalen’s Goof Book) or, using Heinlein’s term, grokking (used prominently in Wolfe’s fundamentally derisive The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test).

Jack Kerouac’s story “The Time of the Geek” defines a sort of trinity of hoodlum, junkie, and poet. [7] Each of the three is a Romantic outsider, a nonconformist who has a vision that does not coincide with the received truth of his society. The poet Leon Levinsky – an Allen Ginsberg figure – relates his “mad description” of the Nickel-O, a Times Square amusement center where, at four in the morning, patrons enter solely to be “sheltered from the darkness.” They look “with that sightless stare that comes from too much horror.” “Everyone looks like a Zombie. . . seeking each other . . . but so stultified by their upbringings somehow, or by the disease of the age, that they can only stumble about and stare indignantly at one another.” “Everybody looks like a geek.” [8] The poet offers to demonstrate though his “subway experiment” that “the atomic disease has already made great headway.” [9] In the subway car Levinsky begins staring at a stuffy old gent through a hole in his newspaper and proceeds to tear long strips from the page with a look of serious concentration, galvanizing his fellow riders in self-consciousness with his “mad” display. The only ones who understand his gesture are the semi-enlightened ones: a child, a young student, a black man, and a lover (with a box of candy).

In an insane world, one with Auschwitz and Hiroshima, ultimately one that includes one’s own most perilous and peculiar human existence, the most significant move will appear to be mad. (Salvador Dalí commented, “There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.”) The straight people in the subway car seek refuge in comforting (but in the end illusory) received ideas, and fidget uncomfortably in the face of irregular behavior, while the hip vision, available only to a few, revels in a direct confrontation with reality, what Burroughs called in his introduction to Naked Lunch “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

The essence of the hip perspective is the claim, annoying to squares, that one has a more accurate “inside” perspective, allowing apprehension of a greater part of the truth than is vouchsafed to others, perhaps even the Whole Truth. This need not occur wholly in the realm of the page. When Aldous Huxley visits the World’s Largest Drugstore, a Rexall’s at Beverley and La Cienega, tripping on mescaline during the early 1950s, the everyday banality of the scene contrasts dramatically with the vision of his altered consciousness. Coming upon a “large, pale-blue” late-model American car, he sees neither a useful tool nor a desirable possession. “At the sight of it, I was suddenly overcome with enormous merriment. What complacency, what an absurd self-satisfaction beamed from those bulging surfaces of glossiest enamel! Man had created the thing in his own image – or rather in the image of his favorite character in fiction.” [10]

But the hip person’s double insight does not require such a popular target as the image of our most swollen consumerism, the American automobile, immense, wasteful, and showy. Gazing at a simple lawn chair, Huxley finds it “inexpressibly wonderful, wonderful to the point, almost, of being terrifying. And suddenly I had an inkling of what it must feel like to be mad.” [11] The disjunction between ordinary and altered consciousness registers as apparent madness, just as in the Beat formulae.
Ginsberg follows his Romantic forebears in the extravagance of his claims. To him the poet’s “angelical ravings” reveal “the secrets of individual imagination,” which are equivalent to “unconditioned Spirit” and thus to “the music of the Spheres.” “Who denies the music of the spheres denies poetry, denies man, & spits on Blake, Shelley, Christ, & Buddha.” [12] This assertion ignores the fact that language is itself entirely conventional, and just as there is no necessary link between signifier and signified, but only a code to be learned, similarly in literature the meaning of rhythms and sounds and associations does not arise spontaneously but rather is acquired through familiarity with a body of poetry. Literature’s codes are collectively constructed over time; the claim of utter self-revelation is an ancient rhetorical device.

The corpus of work identified with the Beats did establish a new pattern for the poetic sensibility. The hip persona is defined by the distance between his vision and the dominant world-view of his time, claiming a superior insight, a prophetic vision which, for all its power, is always out of step with the commonplaces of his age. Though it mythologizes the man in the street, in the end the hip attitude insists on art’s marginalization since only a small coterie can be privy to the secrets of life. Once Kerouac’s prophecy in Dharma Bums “I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans” came more-or-less true ten years later or so, the populist Haight-Ashbury wave left virtually no literary remains. Even among the rock songs, most of the best were old blues numbers.

The Beat claim to spontaneity and sincerity is in fact one of the oldest rhetorical devices. Kerouac advising “no pause to think of proper word,” “not ‘selectivity’ of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought, swimming in sea of English with no discipline” [13] or Ginsberg’s celebrated dictum from Chogyam Trungpa, “First thought, best thought,” are in fact identical to the after-dinner speaker who says “unaccustomed as I am to public speaking” or who pretends to discard the written speech to extemporize. Literary statements along these lines occur throughout poetry’s history. Wordsworth suggested something similar when he spoke of making poetry of “the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement,” though for him the poet has “a more comprehensive soul” than others. [14] When Sidney began his highly conventionalized Astrophel and Stella, saying “‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write,’” he was striking a pose.

What had seemed innovative in the early fifties now looks like another swing of the pendulum between classicism and romanticism. Social norms have altered so that virtually no content is forbidden or even capable of producing scandal. Furthermore, much of what had seemed not only startling in technique in the forties and fifties has now been assimilated. Not only has Kerouac’s image been used for advertisements for the Gap, On the Road is now assigned to reluctant high school classes, and footnotes bloom at the bottom of textbook reprintings of Howl. [15] The excitement with which my generation received Beat writing is unavailable today. Indeed, it seems to me that no new writing elicits a comparable response.

1.. According to his 1958 Partisan Review essay “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” Kerouac is handicapped by “his simple inability to express anything in words.” To him the Beat movement suffers from, of all things, “a pathetic poverty of feeling.” They are “young men who can’t think straight and so hate anyone who can.” The basic issue is whether one is “for or against intelligence itself.” His essay is so vituperative and wide of the mark that it reads today as pure bluster.
In fact many of the best more traditional poets such as Berryman, Roethke, and Lowell altered their practice and adopted the confessional content and the open forms of the counter-culture.

2. John Clellon Homes, “This is the Beat Generation,” New York Times Magazine, November 16, 1952.

3. See The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men, edited by Gene Feldman and Max Gartenberg (New York: Citadel) 1958, p. 323-338.

4. p. 12, The Sullen Art, interviews by David Ossman (New York: Corinth) 1963

5. Not only was Corso nominally Catholic, but the cemetery had been closed to new burials for fifty years, but Corso’s friends managed to make him an exception.

6. See Kerouac’s May 22, 1951 letter and his Paris Review interview, 1968. Kerouac complains about others having lost this marvelous letter, but a good piece of it may be read at http://staff.oswego.org/ephaneuf/web/Beat%20Miscellany/Cassady,%20Neal%20-%20Joan%20Anderson%20Letter.pdf

7. Apart from opium users Coleridge, Shelley, de Quincey, and Crabbe, great jazz artists had sanctified the sensitive heroin addict. See also the glorified hoodlum of Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make who, upon hearing his death sentence tells the judge “’I knew I’d never get to be twenty-one anyhow’ – and snapped his bubble-gum.” (p. 22 of the 1961 Contact edition). Even more remarkable is Norman Mailer’s “existential” justification in “The White Negro” for “two strong eighteen-year-old hoodlums” who conspire “to beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper.”

8. Page 87-88, The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men, edited by Gene Feldman and Max Gartenberg (New York: Citadel) 1958.
The meaning of geek that borders nerd has eclipsed the weird old usage Kerouac intended. Though in 1965 Dylan used the carnival meaning in "Highway 61 Revisited," it now requires a footnote to inform readers that a geek was a sort of degraded “wild man” who opened a freak show, biting the head off live chickens. As Leslie Fiedler noted in Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self, “But ANYONE, merely by altering consciousness can become a Geek, become for others the Freak he has always felt him- self to be.” (346)

9. The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men, p. 93.

10. Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (New York and Evanston: Harper Colophon Edition, 1963), p. 59-60.

11. The Doors of Perception, p. 54

12. Allen Ginsberg, “Notes for Howl and Other Poems,” in The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, edited by Donald M. Allen, 417.

13. From “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” Black Mountain Review 1957.

14. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.”

15. A teen-age fan of Kurt Cobain who had told me that he was forced to read “some boring book” by his English teacher eventually revealed that the title was On the Road. His teacher doubtless had his own enthusiasm and may have puzzled over the students’ indifference.