Noel Young for Black Sparrow Press, 1973
I consider it one of the oddities of my life that I didn't learn about the Beats until college, mid '60s, and then it was through the Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. Peter Marin taught an extraordinary American literature class at Cal State L.A. in which we read just about everyone except the Formalists and New Critics being pounded into us by our other professors. For me it was The Maximus Poems and the projective verse essay by Charles Olson and then Paterson by William Carlos Williams. Of course Olson and Williams weren't Beats -- I still had a hole there -- but I teach a workshop entitled The Geography of My Soul rooted in that class. Whatever the word "soul" means (taboo to me once educated, though I'd been trying to know since earliest consciousness), whatever it was that happened to me with those readings, it was somehow the geography theme in the projected poet voice that forever altered my life. I still have my original paperback editions; the cover of Maximus is a map of Gloucester, Massachusetts. My penciled X on the back cover marks the location of Olson's house, the place from which he was writing (projecting).
I recognized and understood those guys. The spirit of their writings was of the whole of my life, of everything except my literary study. Their works and the others of Marin's class were about energy and place and human consciousness, of breaking the old forms, of the vision and hope in that; of the sacred individual voice projected (or simply uttered as in prayer) in a nonprescribed exploratory free narrative onto and in exchange with the world. Olson said the projective involves a stance toward reality. This was the exact opposite of what I was studying under the Aristotelians; i.e., nothing matters outside the poem. I was a native of Southern California, constant recipient of the powerful energy of the Pacific Ocean, Mexico, and the fastest growing mountains on the planet: the San Bernardinos, the San Gabriels, the Santa Susanas, the Santa Monicas, the Santa Anas, and the San Diegos. My parents read two newspapers a day; my first readers were the Los Angeles Times and the Holy Bible. All my earliest memories are mixed with world events, the politics, the wars, the personalities, the times, and the Southland roads and places of our Sunday rides after Sunday school "just exploring." My earliest girlhood goal was to grow up and become a hobo with my father, who had ridden the rails for ten years before I was born when he was twenty-six. (So how I missed the Beats in the fifties will always be one of the mysteries.)
Peter Marin told stories every class of his friendship with Jack Hirschman, whom he said was "probably the greatest living American poet." (I still see them as I did then in my mind, strolling nights down neon glittery Sunset in Hollywood with their wives, exalting in their brotherhood and the wonders of their newfound world, the West Coast!) That same semester I attended my first poetry reading at the Claremont Colleges, near where I was living. I recognized Robert Duncan's name in the newspaper announcement from the Allen anthology. Wow. A poet in the living flesh? Marin's class to the contrary, I still thought they were all dead. I've written elsewhere of that wizardy, influential moment in which Duncan read and expounded on the poem in the anthology, "A Poem Beginning with A Line by Pindar." A poem about Psyche, the "myth" that has become my archetype.
The following year I took my first and only "traditional" creative writing workshop. It was led by Henri Coulette, one of the first superstar poets out of Iowa and recipient that year of the Lamont prize. As with the other Formalists, Coulette was difficult to relate to personally. Though, perplexingly, an L.A. native, he seemed, in his bow tie and horn-rimmed glasses, emotionally frozen, in physical and psychic denial of the Great Basin out our sixth-floor classroom window, of us, and of even the poetic and the lyrical, the last a label always given his poetry.
But another student in the class was Neeli Cherry [Cherkovski], who told stories of his nightly hanging-out with some crazy poet named Charles Bukowski. How lucky I was that the Formalism of the acclaimed professor-poet at the one end of the table was countered by the bacchanalia of the boy Neeli at the other end. Neeli was as much my teacher as Henri. And then I heard Neeli read -- my second poetry reading!
For the most part, college was my salvation, I am grateful for the education, that I received a sound grounding in Western Civilization -- I sat in the middle of the long table between Coulette and Neeli, with the dozen others, which has always seemed symbolic of where I was at then -- but most fundamentally my education was about my spiritual journey, about finding my path. I was looking for my vocation, not a job. I was looking "to live deliberately, to front on the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life." We read Thoreau in Marin's class too. To waste my life in any system of law and order was unthinkable. I detested the snobbery of the Formalists, the cowardice of "irony, paradox and ambiguity," the elitism and classism of Eliot's criticism. Their formulaic, crossword puzzle approach to poetry was finally boring, not intellectually inspiring, and worse, smacked of sadomasochism. "The law and order" of poetry, and the argument for the laws seemed not unlike "the law and order" ethic of my country's legal history of slavery and racism, and the military's, "the law and order" mentality that had created and was maintaining the Vietnam War.
1968-69: the war raged on. The machinery of mass murder, starting with the law that eighteen-year-old boys had to register for the draft, the emotional abuse and betrayal of genuine patriotism, the corruption of language by the government, the corporations, the churches, Hollywood, and academia, the ongoing destruction of a whole country, the daily body counts -- just to begin the list -- was increasingly intolerable. And for us in Los Angeles, that winter saw record rainfall that caused flash floods, dam breakages, severe mudslides in the foothills and palisades, and many deaths. A woman and her two children just around the block from where I was living now with my two children and sometimes M, a conscientious objector, on a hillside in Highland Park. The significant thing here was that though I was horrified, sickened and frightened for my family, the power and reality of nature kept breaking through, almost as if in triumph and reminding me of what I was missing in the stifling world of academia.
But all this, including Marin's revelatory class and Neeli and his Bukowski, wasn't enough to break down the indoctrination. I accepted that it was impossible to say in poetry what I felt was most important to say, that poetry's forms were too fragile to hold my content (especially my female content). I accepted that my professors knew what poetry was, and that meant I wasn't a poet, despite the ever-welling-up from inside of something like poems. I took a vow never to be a poet. I had to take a vow because the urge was great and fairly constant. (In the end, of course, it was the unrecognized, unaddressed female factor. I hadn't read any women or barely anything about women that was bearable.)
During that last year in graduate school I had a job as the art editor for the alternative weekly newspaper Open City, published and edited by John Bryan. (Charles Bukowski also wrote a weekly column, "Notes of a Dirty Old Man.") After several months of covering the L.A. galleries, I became disillusioned with the commercialism and politics of the art world -- one galling fact was that I couldn't find a single woman artist across that vast city of galleries. In my personal life it had always been women who were the artists. We'd always said -- this before feminism -- art was of the Feminine. Then came the big Erotic Art Show in Hollywood on Valentine's Day, 1969, that was surprisingly excellent -- even a woman was represented: Yoko Ono! As we were leaving, M and I encountered HB, the leading Formalist of my campus, and classic professor-seducer-or-I'll-give-you-a-B type, coming through the door. Unfreezing from his blackballing B of the year before, I squealed in rare irony, "Oh boy! Are you going to love this!" M drove Sunset Boulevard to the ocean and we made love standing in the bushes and rain while witnessing bulldozers knock a mansion off the sliding Palisade to Pacific Coast Highway below. This legally ordered home destruction by the city for safety reasons, and our making love in witness became the metaphor inside of which I wrote my Erotic Art Show piece: the sight of that magnificent home being deliberately pushed off the cliff after the erotica was like the body in sex, like his body pushing into mine from behind, like the body coming to life, and the body being taken out. It was an hilarious moment of joyous and triumphant sex, in acknowledgment of the hell too, the tragedy of our physical awkwardness on this planet, our scary, doomed state.
The next day the police closed the Hollywood gallery, confiscated and (supposedly) destroyed the art, and arrested the gallery owner. I finished my review with my resignation, in protest.
But John Bryan urged me to hold off until after I interviewed a "real artist," Wallace Berman of Topanga Canyon. Probably he told me of Berman's infamous 1957 Ferus Gallery bust for obscenity. My visit and encounter with Wallace and his wife Shirley in their cabin near the top of Topanga is another of the milestones of my life. The date was February 18, 1969, Wallace's forty-third birthday, a fact I don't believe I knew then.
The word "beatnik" was first used by Time magazine in 1958 to describe Wallace Berman. Many since have testified to Berman's "strange and compelling mixture of awareness and ingenuousness that almost defies verbalization." Here are some fragments from "Perdita's Father," my essay on HD, Duncan and Wallace Berman.1There is a giant white boulder beside his garage-studio door on which is painted an incredibly beautiful black letter. "Aleph, the universal letter from the Kabbala," he answers me in a strange tone. "I don't know what it means, but the moon comes over it now between three and four in the morning and that Indian tobacco plant has sprung up beside it." I'm stunned by its inexplicable beauty. (I write twice "huge unbelievable white rock" and then again "incredible white rock!") He tells me of other Kabbala letters he's printed on boulders and pebbles in the creek below. "Who knows where they are now with the floods." He says this not in loss.He asks me again as he did on the phone not to do the interview thing, though I can write anything I want of my visit. This is a great relief, interviews are so artificial.He leads me into his garage studio, showing me where the rain gets in, this is part of the process, explaining his verifax machine, an office copying machine with which he works. In the corner is the remains of one of his old assemblages, the Verital Panel: the haunting, brooding eyes of a woman caked in dry mud. "It was buried in a mud slide in Beverly Glen Canyon, our place was destroyed, everything, only those eyes peered out of the mud." He wanted to leave it there, but a friend rescued it for him. He shows me his small handpress on which he prints the magazine Semina; he shows me more things than I can take in, photos of an incredible white Rose like his Rock by someone named Jay. He says that the Aleph symbolizes the pure gesture of self, the breath of life, "the first of the mother letters" -- he actually says mother -- from which derive all other letters of language and hence all things, or at least our sense of them.He leads me up old crumbling cement weed-clad steps to his house. "For the most part, the artists in this exhibition are more concerned with a life-style than making works of art ..." (Source lost.) I've never been in such a house. Unpainted wood, worn maroon velvet divan, Oriental rugs, all natural, found, weather-beaten furnishings. The music of Bach and Otis Redding. His wife Shirley, the eyes in the Verital Panel, coffee and signs of recent artist visitors, Jack Hirschman, and a boy somewhere in the back of the house. They tell me of The Rose by Jay DeFeo, they show me more photos of it and of her, a small barebreasted woman artist whose Rose is so big they had to bulldoze part of the building to move it. I sit on the velvet divan, looking at Semina, fingering George Herms's handprinted and illustrated publication, Haiku, by Diane di Prima. And another beautifully handmade book by his Love Press of di Prima's, Revolutionary Letters. Inside is the first poetry I've read about what is happening right now, poems in protest to the Vietnam War, what I was certain couldn't be said in poetry. He shows me photos of making Michael McClure's head into a lion's head, then the album cover he did of McClure roaring at zoo lions and the lions roaring back. Shirley laughs he's on the cover of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Magical Mystery Tour, he's in the movie Easy Rider. He keeps giving me things, his posters, photographs. He keeps giving himself, showing, telling, offering. The sad pornographic world churns far below.Shirley tells of his first and only exhibit at the old Ferus Gallery. Someone protested that it was pornographic. Wallace was given the opportunity to withdraw one item, but he refused and was arrested, spent several days in jail. The trial lasted months, was horrible, he was convicted and fined for inciting lewd and lascivious passions. Most of the exhibition was destroyed by the police. I'm shown a photo of the offense. Factum Fidei was a large charred cross from which hung photographs of a vulva and a penis and the words ART IS LOVE IS GOD.He has not exhibited again or made art for the public's consummation. This is when he started his verifax collages....Now they're telling of their four-year departure for good from L.A. after Ferus, to San Francisco where Lawrence Ferlinghetti had been found innocent of publishing obscenity, the famous trial of Allen Ginsberg's Howl. They lived for a year in Robert Duncan's house. "We traded houses with Duncan and Jess, 1960-61. But we came back. We love this canyon, this is our home. We'll never leave it again."Now I'm holding Berman's printed words, The World's Mind by Robert Duncan. I'm beyond words but in the most powerful affirmative sense. I'm holding still another of his posters, Michael McClure's words, "Poetry is a muscular principle and a revolution for the body-spirit and intellect and ear. Making images and pictures, even when speaking in melody, is not enough.... There must be a poetry of pure beauty and energy that does not mimic but joins and exhorts reality and states the higher daily vision." This is what I've felt about the Formalists, this is what I've been saying in my art essays and searching for in the galleries. "Art must roar like a lion," McClure says. "There are no laws but living changing ones, and any system is a touch of death."When I got home I wrote "A Revolutionary Letter Poem to Diane di Prima." It just poured out past my vow, I couldn't stop it, like mud down a hill in heavy downpour. It was about making love to M while she was making poems, celebrating and grieving both lovemaking and making poems. It was about the loss of so many poems within me.On Tuesday I drove my Wallace Berman article on which I'd struggled the whole week -- "almost defies verbalization" -- along with the things he'd given me for Open City to photograph, west to Melrose.... The secretary, who I learned later was the writer Deena Metzger, called me at the end of the week to tell me that Open City had been shut down by the LAPD because of my Erotic Art Show article and their front page reproduction of one of the Show's drawings, their printing license revoked, the editor John Bryan and maybe herself arrested and everything, including all of my Berman material, confiscated.
We dropped out then -- M, my son and daughter and myself --and lived the next six months in our station wagon, exploring the Midwest, the South and the East, "looking for America," as the song went. Trying to find some sanity. We returned to L.A. the week of the Manson killings, took off again, spent a week on a beach at Big Sur, the Palo Colorado beach Jack Kerouac wrote Big Sur on, reading it aloud, M screaming into the screaming surf the words Kerouac screamed into it (to keep from going insane), not knowing until the trial that some of the other campers on our beach were Manson Family members on the run. It was on that beach too that we read the first account of the Mai Lai Massacre. Mid-September we returned to put the kids in school. We found a two-room cabin on Topanga Beach in which we lived most gloriously for the next three years. Kerouac died our first month there (M screaming his Big Sur into the screaming Topanga surf). My children have always said Topanga Beach was the best experience of their childhood. Topanga Beach: the geography of their souls.
A green VW bug turned south at the Topanga Canyon light onto Pacific Coast Highway and stopped for us, hitchhiking right outside our gate. We were on the way to the Santa Monica Library and the health food store. I got in back, Mark sat up front; we had this routine down by then. Still, the driver flashed on me in the mirror the seven miles down the coast. He said he was the painter JG, newly married to the blond starlet of the famous TV series. "I know of you some," I said (but I didn't know of her; we certainly didn't have a TV) "I write about L.A. art. Do you know Wallace Berman up in the canyon?" "He's my closest neighbor," he said into the rearview. When he let us off I went straight to the art section. JG's current show was paintings of newsprint/film footage of the John Kennedy assassination, and of Oswald being gunned down.
When I went up to interview JG I had to walk past the "incredible" crystal white rock with the black Aleph to get to his place. JG gave me a tour of his paintings and sculptures, impressive in technique and explicit sexual content. Then before a large outdoor canvas of a girl with a three inch clitoris, his favorite model, he nonchalantly pulled out his penis and presented it to me. The sun's ray on it in his open palm. I was as nonchalant, the way I handled all such common displays then, beginning with my father, through many of my professors (Formalists and otherwise). I ignored it so as not to deflate the poor man's enthusiasm for his member. So as not to stop my shy, uncertain, cautious but determined footsteps into the world.
I am relieved to say that I did leave then, laughing my warm (ironic?) goodbyes. Descending the muddy road, Wallace Berman stepped out from his rock. He pointed out George Herms's place across and up the canyon, urging me to interview him. In the movement of his hand across the canyon slit I saw the oxygen rushing up from the ocean seven miles below, churning the breaths of granite, sage, and soil. "The aether," Robert Duncan says, "wherefrom fall all architectures I am." Then Berman was telling me that he'd been a pimp in East L.A. in the late forties, that being a pimp went along with being hip, with dope, with jazz, with the scene post-World War II. But then, something about getting it, the cruelty, the inhumanity, of changing. There came this moment, this guy was actually telling me this, when he realized that he could not be an artist if he was a pimp, that he could not be an artist if he did not love.
This is when Wallace Berman and I became -- somewhat like "friends." I was so shy by then, so dropped out (and afraid of men, no doubt), I could barely function in any context outside my family.Wallace never read any of my writing, not a single word, not even the unpublished Open City piece about him, but he treated me as a writer, as an artist. Every once in a while he would just be at my door, me inside working on my James Joyce/The Structure of Molly Bloom book (criticism, not the creative, thereby keeping my vow). Bringing me things he thought I might need, like Clayton Eshleman's Caterpillar (a photograph on the cover of the incredible rock), Jack Hirschman’s new book, Black Alephs, that he designed. He would tell me news of his friends, poets, artists, musicians, actors (Russ Tamblyn), many of them famous, but of their work, not their fame, and of his work. He'd tell me of the poet David Meltzer, did I know of him? A family person, too, like myself, like you, a poet who's figured out how to be a husband and father too, or at least knows his family is as important as his art, that these somehow cannot be conflicts, that he and Tina married while they were still just kids in North Beach, like you married so young. He'd actually ask me about my son and my daughter, signs of whom were everywhere in that space of my new Berman decor. He'd talk of his son, Tosh, once of his mystification that his boy didn't like pot, but of course, to each his own. We would stand there in that tiny shack (that had been hauled down from Lake Arrowhead), the ocean pounding the oxygen and sand into the room -- the aether wherefrom fall all architectures I am -- and I knew my home, my family and myself honored by an artist, a man.
I remember reading Black Alephs sunbathing at the mouth of Topanga Creek, in utter longing for my own words, praying JAH's into the sand, pleading for mine to surface, then taking my vow again.Once, during a Spring minus tide, the year's highest and lowest tides, the grunion running, Wallace came to invite me to a beach a few miles north where he had painted/printed his Kabbala letters on the rocks, rocks that are almost always under water. Much to my lifelong regret I didn't go with him in his old truck (the truck he will die in). I was miserably uncomfortable then with anyone other than my love and my kids; I didn't know how to just be with another human who was not my lover. Having said that, this is now the important thing to say, I've said it ever since, as awkward as it is: Wallace Berman never came on to me. Not in the slightest way. Not once, not ever, not a flicker of the eye in the rearview. Not once, though alone in that beautiful cabin. My need for the experience of such a man -- for such a married man -- was very great. Something about questions of inhumanity, of getting the cruelty…. Of changing. ART IS LOVE IS GOD. He treated me as a fellow artist.
The sun is pouring into my back, the sun and surf are beating through the big window into me at the TV tray I used for my first writing desk. Wallace has just left. I've found my old college text The New American Poetry.
David Meltzer:Born 1937, Rochester, New York. Lived in Brooklyn until I was 13. Moved to Long Island for an eventful year of family chaos. At 14 left for the West & stayed in L.A. for 6 formative years in which I met Wallace Berman & Robert Alexander, who were instrumental in turning me on to the fantastic possibilities of art & self. Moved to San Francisco in 1957, and married in 1958. Spent many months reading at The Cellar with jazz. I no longer believe in the poet as a public target.I have decided to work my way thru poetry & find my voice & the stance I must take in order to continue my journey. Poetry is NOT my life. It is an essential PART of my life.
David Meltzer's bio eventually became for me the most important words in the famous anthology. (We poets who so disdain the bio task, take note!) It somehow dealt with the biggest hole in my muted soul, the earthquake tsunami mud slide of my path. For one thing it was a verification of what I was experiencing in Wallace Berman, "turning me on to the fantastic possibilities of art & self," but which I could hardly allow myself to believe. I was utterly paranoid of my gullibility, my belief that such men were possible. I'd been played the fool so often. (But I had a boy who was as high and glorious and well-meaning as my girl. What happens?) Maybe it was that very morning that I'd read in the New York Review of Book a famous male writer, citing as his example the great poet Rilke, declaring that of course he didn't go to his daughter's wedding, walk her down the aisle, because on that particular day he was hot, writing so well. The most galling of all was his assumption (like orders to us) that of course we all agree, that art -- his art -- is higher than life, than his daughter's life. There's an essay by the filmmaker Stan Brakhage, "Death of the Bridgroom," about the fifties core axiom that for men, particularly for artists, marriage was death. I was a daughter, a sister, a mother and a lover and I had been a wife (who will always be devastated by her bridegroom's rejection of her, and thus their children; her husband born 1937, Yonkers New York, who moved at thirteen to Long Island). How to say that I burned with the vision that any art that I might develop could not be at the forfeit of my loved ones, that art is NOT higher than life, or anyone's life, or a contradiction, that, as David Meltzer says here, it's a "journey. Poetry is NOT my life. It is an essential PART of my life." My art would not kill my bridegroom, nor my children. Well, I couldn't say such yet, but the door cracked open right then, oxygen to the flame, that I could be a poet and a lover and a mother and a full human being, all, in my short allotted time, and this would be good parenting, good role-modeling, and good for me, my lover, and the world. There were men who had this vision too.
I wasn't a prude, I understood and applauded (still do) the extraordinary men and women who were flouting the puritanical/papitalistic mores, but I needed to stay true to myself (my children and lover). I needed an art that is love (that is God). (I wasn't a prude, I defended in print one of Bukowski's most controversial "Notes of a Dirty Old Man" columns, supposedly written from under the bench at the end of the Santa Monica Pier as he stared up a nine-year-old girl's dress. I loved Bukowski the way I loved Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (Marin's class again, Miller now an old man living directly above me on the Palisade). I believed in freedom, I still do, I will never champion censorship, staying open is staying in Love, in Life, free of those old sadomasochistic forms that perpetuate the sins. Being free to say anything brings to light the dark secrets so that we can get on down the road. So we can figure out what's really going on. I wasn't a prude but I was in great denial of the negative ramifications of my father's sexual violations of me at age nine. I was in denial mainly because Western Civilization wouldn't allow one of its most common stories to be told by anyone, but most especially by her, from her point of view. That story is of the unspeakable, of the deepest censorship of all. It still is. In order to maintain the patriarchal forms of authority, privilege, sadomasochism; to encourage the poor blinded boy to grow into authority over his mother and assume sexual privilege with his daughter. Our so-called advanced and superior Western Civilization is as much built on enforced false gender perceptions and roles as any primitive or non-Judeo-Christian one.
The experience of Berman, the example of Meltzer were fundamental and essential to my final and complete breaking from my vow five years later. I so needed such male artists. Male artists of wisdom, integrity, passion and compassion (Love) consciously on the sacred journey that is life. I wasn't a prude. I embraced the Beats when I finally knew them. The first time I saw Allen Ginsberg, April, 14, 1967, at USC, the night before we caravanned to San Francisco for one of the first big antiwar marches, he declared to the hundreds in the audience, "something is clearly wrong with me that I can't love women. This is what I have to work on. This is the kind of personal work we all must do in the work to understand and eliminate war." Make Love Not War. I embraced the free-sex ethos of my generation, though I couldn't do it. I couldn't trust the men mouthing that. Always there was that silent festering wound, my father's and brothers' sexism and misogyny, as we later learn to articulate it. Wallace Berman and David Meltzer and as I see here, even Allen Ginsberg, were the first male artists who, if indirectly, acknowledged for me the fundamental problem of the Beat phenomenon: the problem of woman. And that helped to save me.
"It is the need," Creeley said, "to enter, what we loosely call the vision to be one with the Imago Mundi, that image of the world we each carry within us as possibility itself." I grew up in the fantastic energy of Southern California, wind/ocean currents hitting the earthquaking land energy, aware from earliest consciousness of the earth spinning west into its own eastern-making current, but which was constantly being sucked into the commercial, ripped off and objectified into capital. Real estate. Everywhere I went I too was automatically objectified, not unlike the contents of a formalist poem. (And my children too!) I hated being an object, no matter how high the rewards. I could not be a movie star. I would not sell myself (not even, maybe especially, for the sake of my children). I would find a man capable of understanding just this, a man who would love my soul, not just my body. This of course is the Psyche myth, the myth of the human soul trying to birth out of pornography, the thievery, kidnapping and rapes of the cave, and the amoral Gods of Greek and Roman cosmology. "I have decided to work my way thru poetry & find my voice & the stance I must take in order to continue my journey. Poetry is NOT my life. It is an essential PART of my life." And so I could do this too, in my own way and situation. Isn't it fantastic to read those 1950s words of David Meltzer and now, in 2005, to witness their stunning and ongoing accomplishment?
1 Sharon Doubiago, "Perdita's Father," in H.D. and Poets After, ed. by Donna Krolik Hollenberg (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000), pp 53-74.
Back Contents Next