Tag Archives: The Beats

Wild City (376)

“Nothing I had experienced in my life led me to expect what would happen to me in my loneliness. One day in the middle of the summer as I was walking down 125th Street, I suddenly stopped and stared around me in amazement. It was as if I had awakened from a long dream that I’d walked around in all my life. I threw over all my preoccupations with ideas and felt so free that I didn’t know who I was or where I was The whole appearance of the world changed in a minute when I realized what had happened, and I began to look at people walking past me. They all had incredible sleepy, bestial expressions on their faces, yet no different from what they usually looked like. I suddenly understood everything vague and troubled in my mind that had been caused by the expression of people around me. Everybody I saw had something wrong with them. The apparition of an evil, sick, unconscious wild city rose before me in visible semblance, and about the dead buildings in the barren air, the bodies of the soul that built the wonderland shuffled and stalked and lurched in attitudes of immemorial nightmare all around. When I saw people conversing around me, all their conversation, all their bodily movements, all their signs, the thoughts reflected on their faces were of fear of recognition and anguished fear that someone would take the initiative and discover their masks and lies. Therefore every tone of voice, movement of the hand, carried a negative overtone: this in the world is called coyness and shyness and politeness, or frigidity and hostility when the awareness becomes too overpowering. I felt that I would be crucified if I alluded with any insistence to the divine nature of ourselves and the physical universe. Therefore I did not speak but only stared in dumb silence.”

— Allen Ginsberg, quoted in I Celebrate Myself by Bill Morgan (102-03)

KW3 (376)

7. Pink juice

This phrase comes from Kerouac’s introduction to Rbt. Frank’s seminal photography book The Americans, a collection of images initially rejected by large numbers of conservative critics for its “anti-American” content, particularly representations of segregation as in the famous picture of a New Orleans trolley car. That photo seems to give direct form for the oppressive social regimentation of Jim Crow, as it shows whites in the front and Black people in the back. Particularly notable is the wounded expression of a Black man apparently looking directly at Frank’s camera. Kerouac marvels at Frank’s humane, searching eye, arguing that it visualizes the “pink juice of human kindness.” This phrase stands out among a slew of other verbal images, many of which pinball from line to line after the fashion of Kerouac’s idea of Spontaneous Prose. Using the photos from the book as “image-objects,” he allows his language and consciousness to flow over them like a river over a rock.

8. Fellaheen

This term is found in Kerouac’s short “story” October in the Railroad Earth, an exemplar of the Spontaneous Prose method in which the writer “blow[s] as deep as [they] want to blow” after the fashion of a jazz musician departing on an improvised solo. An Arabic word, fellaheen literally translates to “tiller of the earth”— i.e., a peasant. “The Negro” (in the accepted parlance of mid-century America) as well as the bum or the Beat are fellaheens— humbled by circumstance, beaten down, stripped of pretension, yet angelic and saintly. The Beat concern for those living at the margins of mainstream society indicates their antagonism toward the stultifying conformity of Cold War culture as well as a belief that the ordinary aspects of living— and ordinary people— have a beatific aspect. We can see these values expressed in Ginsberg’s Sunflower Sutra, where he takes the presence of a grime-encrusted sunflower as an occasion to marvel at the hallowedness of life. Other examples from Ginz include the Footnote to Howl with its anaphoristic use of “Holy, holy, holy” to claim that “everything’s holy” including “the cocks of the grandfathers of Kansas”— an absurd phrase that brings these stolid, conservative figures down to an earthier level. 

5. No. 5

This is the title of an abstract expressionist painting by Jackson Pollock, one of the key figures of that art movement which also includes Willem de Kooning. At one time the most expensive painting in the world, No. 5 is non-representational. Its aesthetic value comes from its chaotic, aggressive use of color and line, which are produced using the techniques of Action Painting. No. 5 is the visual correlative of Jazz, taking its power from spontaneity rather than score (in this sense “score” in painting might be the model of the work, the object rendered, as in a still-life). There are a few things to consider here. One is that the financial value of No. 5 indicates the degree to which edgy, Modernist art has been commodified. As with Ginsberg’s poetry and Kerouac’s prose, paintings such as Pollock’s have fully entered the mainstream of American culture. Provocative in their immediate time, they now represent culture AS capital. The other thing to acknowledge is the notion that as with Ginsberg and Kerouac’s methods of composition, and the increasingly baroque and experimental shape of Jazz music, the question of form is not given in advance. Form will find itself in the act of expression. (And this is one of the things that makes art an approach to the expansion of consciousness.)

3. Hot vs. cool

We might call this phrase— drawn from lecture as well as Ginsberg’s remarks on Kerouac and the meaning of Beat— the primary dialectic of America’s first national subculture. Yet it also applies to different genres of Jazz and arguably Robert Frank’s strange short film “Pull My Daisy.” To be hot is to be open, expectant, goofy, ardent, and enthusiastic. Hot can be fast, as in the notes played by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in “Salt Peanuts”. It can be effusive to the point of innocence as in the speaker of Ginsberg’s poem “Supermarket in California”. It can be “ragged” in a sense, or unfinished, as in the editing and camerawork of Pull My Daisy. Cool on the other hand possesses a distance, a low-key quality. As a cultural style it seems more meditative and detached. Miles Davis’s trumpet work on Kind of Blue is decidedly Cool, as are Chet Baker’s vocals. As a way of being in the world, Cool indicates an unwillingness to engage completely. It’s a holding back of sentiment and judgement. Kerouac was clearly a Hot Beat, as evidenced by his penchant for “goofing” (mentioned in PMD)— i.e., playing with language and actively creating nonsense. Nonsense has the capacity to interrupt the rigidity of rationality. It’s an antidote to the regimentation of normative, conformist society. 

The Old Italians Dying (376)

I probably should’ve shared this poem by Lawrence Ferlenghetti before everyone went to North Beach.

The Old Italians Dying

For years the old Italians have been dying
all over America
For years the old Italians in faded felt hats
have been sunning themselves and dying
You have seen them on the benches
in the park in Washington Square
the old Italians in their black high button shoes
the old men in their old felt fedoras
with stained hatbands
have been dying and dying
day by day
You have seen them
every day in Washington Square San Francisco
the slow bell
tolls in the morning
in the Church of Peter & Paul
in the marzipan church on the plaza
toward ten in the morning the slow bell tolls
in the towers of Peter & Paul
and the old men who are still alive
sit sunning themselves in a row
on the wood benches in the park
and watch the processions in and out
funerals in the morning
weddings in the afternoon
slow bell in the morning Fast bell at noon
In one door out the other
the old men sit there in their hats
and watch the coming & going
You have seen them
the ones who feed the pigeons
cutting the stale bread
with their thumbs & penknives
the ones with old pocketwatches
the old ones with gnarled hands
and wild eyebrows
the ones with the baggy pants
with both belt & suspenders
the grappa drinkers with teeth like corn
the Piemontesi the Genovesi the Siciliani
smelling of garlic & pepperoni
the ones who loved Mussolini
the old fascists
the ones who loved Garibaldi
the old anarchists reading L’Umanita Nova
the ones who loved Sacco & Vanzetti
They are almost all gone now
They are sitting and waiting their turn
and sunning themselves in front of the church
over the doors of which is inscribed
a phrase which would seem to be unfinished
from Dante’s Paradiso
about the glory of the One
who moves everything…
The old men are waiting
for it to be finished
for their glorious sentence on earth
to be finished
the slow bell tolls & tolls
the pigeons strut about
not even thinking of flying
the air too heavy with heavy tolling
The black hired hearses draw up
the black limousines with black windowshades
shielding the widows
the widows with the black long veils
who will outlive them all
You have seen them
madre de terra, madre di mare
The widows climb out of the limousines
The family mourners step out in stiff suits
The widows walk so slowly
up the steps of the cathedral
fishnet veils drawn down
leaning hard on darkcloth arms
Their faces do not fall apart
They are merely drawn apart
They are still the matriarchs
outliving everyone
in Little Italys all over America
the old dead dagos
hauled out in the morning sun
that does not mourn for anyone
One by one Year by year
they are carried out
The bell
never stops tolling
The old Italians with lapstrake faces
are hauled out of the hearses
by the paid pallbearer
in mafioso mourning coats & dark glasses
The old dead men are hauled out
in their black coffins like small skiffs
They enter the true church
for the first time in many years
in these carved black boats
The priests scurry about
as if to cast off the lines
The other old men
still alive on the benches
watch it all with their hats on
You have seen them sitting there
waiting for the bocce ball to stop rolling
waiting for the bell
for the slow bell
to be finished tolling
telling the unfinished Paradiso story
as seen in an unfinished phrase
on the face of a church
in a black boat without sails
making his final haul


America you don’t really want to go to war.
America its them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. Her wants our auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations.
— Allen Ginsberg, “America”