L.M. FREER Reviews
Beats at Naropa: An Anthology Edited by Anne Waldman and Laura Wright
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2009)
Several weeks ago, while sitting with a group of doctoral students in a colorless, windowless midtown Manhattan classroom, beat poet Diane di Prima posed the following question: “Can you think of anything at all that you really believe a poem should not do?”
The question focused the wandering energies in the room, charged the ensuing silence with power—and simultaneously calmed the anxieties of twenty-odd prototypical New Yorkers, who reveled, childlike, in the resulting sense of possibility. That poetry remains an able vehicle for anything—indeed, ought to be considered the most able of vehicles, for everything—is an optimistic position one does not often hear openly espoused, much less promulgated, in a city where pessimism seeps in like leaking rainwater, quickly saturating both body and soul. The bright burst of energy and color that di Prima’s question generated lodged under my breastbone for weeks, making an unseasonably warm October in this city also unseasonably cheerful. Dour sound bites about politics and the economy, the MTA or Afghanistan, none seemed as lasting as the idea that a poem should be able to do anything, and everything.
The driving force behind Anne Waldman and Laura Wright’s 2009 Beats at Naropa: An Anthology (Coffee House Press) is a similar moment of coalescence, founded in a lasting belief in the value of aesthetics as a means of healing a pessimistic society. And for Waldman, that synergistic moment is further rooted in and fueled by the history of the school itself. Describing the decision to found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (now a part of Naropa University), Waldman asserts in her introduction to this volume that among the co-founders of the school there was a similar “commonality of spirit,” a moment of a shared sense of possibility. And out of this mystical “chrysalis,” there emerged an educational endeavor designed to cultivate both an “‘outrider’ tradition” of poetics generally, and succeeding generations of Snyderian “wild minds” in particular (11-13). And in the decades since the founding of Naropa, the learning and sharing that has gone on in the mountains of Boulder is certainly an example of the lasting power of such moments in time, both spiritually and poetically.
This anthology consciously pushes for a wider definition of “beat poet,” however, including transcriptions of events and talks which not only cover Naropa’s entire history from a chronological perspective, but which also include individuals who are at best tangentially associated with, or even consciously reject, the label in question. In doing this, Waldman asserts, the anthology purposefully hopes to generate its own sort of thematic consistency. Claiming that “I believe the term applied here coalesces—maybe for just a brief moment—a kinship that was so important to Allen Ginsberg,” Waldman’s introduction finds coherence in friendship, community, and historic alliances between poets (14). However, in taking such an ever-evolving concept as “kinship” as the lens through which we are to view these transcribed talks and panels, the anthology risks feeling more like a series of weak connections rather than strong, and occasionally strives too hard to find common ground. For the reader new to Beat poetics, this may be particularly difficult; without a knowledge of the web of personal relationships behind these pieces, the anthology as a whole might easily feel ungrounded, far from the historic sociopolitical realities from which it actually emerged.
That said, Waldman and Wright have strategically chosen to print texts which might well awaken a casual reader to the interpersonal intricacies behind the Beats’ aesthetic manifestoes. One of the strongest aspects of Beats at Naropa is the inclusion of pieces that look back at the history of this poetic movement. Collecting a 1999 talk by Michael McClure about the Six Gallery reading, a 2000 panel discussion about “Women and the Beats,” and interviews both recent (with Ed Sanders) and past (with William Burroughs) alongside the more esoteric pieces gives the anthology as a whole some of the benefits of self-reflection, a maturity which generates not only a historical but a thematic context. Passages such as McClure’s reminder that the formative 1955 reading “was nothing too elegant,” and Sanders’ commentary on the meaning of Kerouac and Ginsberg’s differing votes in the 1960 presidential election, readily illuminate the history of the Beats for those readers who are in the early stages of a poetic encounter (17, 142).
Unfortunately, these moments of enlightenment are haphazard, scattered throughout the anthology as a whole. While this might well be a nod to the impossibility of a truthful linear narrative, or an attempt to avoid developing a chronologically hidebound, “museum piece” of a book, it also often limits the audience of this text to those insiders who might already be aware of and receptive to the poetic theories dispersed within it. As Gary Snyder notes in 1983’s “Basic Definitions,” the switch from an oral to a written tradition “makes the literary experience…more solitary,” as opposed to the “social experience” it had been in “preliterate times” (31). Similarly, the switch from attending a lecture on poetics to reading a transcription of said talk can close down what was originally an open, even communal experience.
So can a poetics anthology genuinely transmit the energy within those moments of awareness and insight that define its past? It is again in the words of Diane di Prima—whose 1997 speech, “By Any Means Necessary,” concludes Waldman and Wright’s collection—that we might find inspiration. Explaining her ambivalence about the then-nascent powers of the Web, di Prima argues in favor of the handmade broadside or little magazine, noting that “Each time you do it, you’ve made an object. Even if it’s a note to a friend, it’s something that stays around, and sometimes other people see it or use it a long time later.” And while it’s true that such objects can similarly become artifacts, “and thereby you’re freezing the moment,” you’re also transmitting your own energies to your readers via that object, building a relationship between poet and audience that to some degree may help mitigate the social losses that come with near-universal literacy (197). Ultimately, Beats at Naropa does function as a sort of updated, not-so-little magazine, a chronicle of both past and present, and in its scattered nature it occasionally manages to transmit the same sense of poetic possibility which can yet be found in readings, classroom discussions, or conversations between good friends—the kind of kinship-building which still happens for us all.
In 1975, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche—the founder of Naropa University—moderated a “Poets’ Colloquium” at the school, engaging nine poets in conversation with him and each other. In the midst of this often chaotic transcript, Allen Ginsberg ably articulates the potential power poetry may yet have in contemporary society. Asked by Trungpa how, exactly, “poetry would help people,” Ginsberg stated, “It’s you who learn” the “agreements and contradictions” of society “for other people to understand,” that the role of the (Beat) poet is to observe and transmit all he or she sees, however (dis)orderly it may seem to be (173). And while this ultimately emerges from a particular experience of selfhood, of individual behavior and habits of mind, Ginsberg asserts, when pressed by Trungpa, that this will absolutely “help society,” because it allows for the expression of experiences which have either been poorly portrayed or ignored completely, thereby generating a more complete picture of society as a whole (173).
The optimism of this statement, the assurance that poetry can provide aid, inspires me—much as Diane di Prima’s words did on a rainy October night some weeks ago. A poem cannot always solve your immediate material woes. It can’t always stop the MTA from raising subway fares, or get the U.S. out of two wars. But as we head into the darkest nights of the year, the Beat poets remind us: there is nothing a poem should not do. And poetry can always help.
L. M. Freer is a doctoral candidate in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY, where she studies twentieth-century American poetics. She hopes to eventually emerge from her own “chrysalis” as an “outrider” scholar of the inventive and unorthodox.