Aspects of the Beat Generation Aesthetic

1. Read all of the resources about the Beat Generation. 

2. Conduct your own research about the beat writers. There are plenty of articles and documentaries about this interesting group of artists.

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3. Use the articles provided, my slides, and your own research about the beats to create a list of 7-10 aspects of the beat values, ideas, and aesthetic. Provide your source for each item.

4. Point out one example of how Jitterbug Perfume could be considered a “beat” novel. Provide a specific page and/or quotation to demonstrate your point. 

In order to understand Jitterbug Perfume, it’s important to understand the cultural and literary contexts that influence it. 

After the Second World War, America entered into a new era epitomized by Southern California’s migration patterns and booming industries. Returning soldiers were eager to start families and enter into a stable workforce. Many developers capitalized on these desires and sold us the dream of the suburban family residence: a “nuclear family”: 2.4 kids, with mom as homemaker and dad off working to provide his family with all the modern conveniences in their white-picket-fence home

But not everyone bought into “square” values. Some artists and writers reacted against the commercial, materialistic, and conformist mainstream. In the 1950s this group of artists coalesced as “the beat generation”. 

Read pages 1-5 of Herd’s article for more help defining characteristics of the Beat Generation. (files: Herd Beat)

Read Ginsberg’s own definition here (

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Document Type:


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Record: 1
`After All, What Else Is There to Say?’ Ed Sanders and the Beat
Herd, David
Review of Contemporary Fiction. Spring99, Vol. 19 Issue 1, p122.
Poetry Review
INFLUENCE (Literary, artistic, etc.) — History — 20th century
V.F.W. Crawling Contest, The (Poem)
BEAT poetry
GINSBERG, Allen, 1926-1997
The article examines some poetic works by poet Ed Sanders to
know whether his literary aesthetics were influenced by beat poet
Allen Ginsberg. It addresses Sander’s poetic manifesto,
measures Sander’s poetic development, and provides details on
Sanders’ long narrative poem “The V.F.W. Crawling Contest.”
MasterFILE Premier


Among the more telling stories in the first volume of Ed Sanders’s Tales of Beatnik Glory is “A Book of
Verse.” The story opens with a sharp image of provincial life in the tranquilized fifties. It is 1957 and a
“carload” of “graduating seniors”–among them the unnamed young man from whose perspective events
are narrated–drive from their small town on the Missouri-Kansas border for a fraternity weekend at the
state university. Dressed for the occasion, “he,” the central character, “wore his forty-five dollar R.H.
Macy flannel suit with the pink and blue flecks he and his mother had bought for the homecoming dance
in 1956.” Unextravagant, off-the-peg, conventionally distinctive, the suit bespeaks a conformist
sensibility. As does the weekend that consisted of an “afternoon beer and barbecue party” and “was
otherwise uneventful except that he threw up into the waterfall of a local fancy restaurant when drunk,”
an act of socially acceptable rebellion that “guaranteed him an invitation to pledge the fraternity” (Tales

While at the University, the young man buys a copy of “Howl,” distantly aware that the title poem has
caused controversy. Its impact is explosive.

Howl ripped into his mind like the tornado that had uprooted the cherry tree in his backyard when he

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was a child. He began to cry…. He walked down the stairs in the middle of the night to wake his parents
and read it to them. His mother threatened to call the state police …. Over and over he “howled” the
poem, till much of it was held in his mind and he’d close his eyes and grab the book, almost tearing it,
and shriek passages, stamping the ground. “God! God!” he yelled, “God!”…

Gone were the days of shoe polish, clean shirts, and paste-on smiles. He began to spend almost all of
his time writing poetry…. For days he worked on a howling masterpiece. He typed various versions and
gradually the poem evolved into the rageful shape he desired. (Tales 280-81, 284)

The purpose of “A Book of Verse” is to measure the impact of “Howl” on a young mind–Sanders’s–
conditioned by a small American town in the 1950s. The story thus serves two functions. It testifies to
the poem’s importance in twentieth-century poetic history. It also poses a problem. Sanders, so the story
goes, became a poet because he read Ginsberg’s poem. The problem arising is thus one of influence.
How does the poet react to such a transformative early reading experience? Or more specifically, how
does the poet whose way of seeing has been fundamentally revised by “Howl” proceed to write without
reproducing Ginsberg’s point of view?

The question can be more instructively, if more obliquely formulated, if one considers Sanders’s poetic
manifesto Investigative Poetry, published in 1976. The heart of the manifesto is Sanders’s exhortation to
fellow poets “to describe every aspect…of the historical present…for this is the era of the description of
the All” (1). In so exhorting, Sanders has recourse to a familiar rhetoric: the rhetoric of inclusion.
“Inclusion,” it would seem fair to say, had been the watchword of every significantly innovative body of
American poetry produced since the 1940s, so much so that by 1976, the notion of “inclusion” had
solidified into the official idiom of experimental postmodern poetry. How else could Sanders write of “the
era of the description of the All”? And not least among the significantly innovative American poets who
had emphasized the value of poetic inclusion was Sanders’s dedicatee, Allen Ginsberg, “who sets for all
time the example that rebel poets not allow themselves to be driven into isolation.” Ginsberg, indeed,
had been feeling out the implications of this rhetoric of inclusion since early 1949. Witness “After All,
What Else Is There to Say?”

When I sit before a paper
writing my mind turns
in a kind of feminine
madness of chatter;
but to think to see, outside,
in a tenement the walls
of the universe itself
I wait: wait till the sky
appears as it is,
wait for a moment when
the poem itself
is my way of speaking out, not
declaiming of celebrating, yet,
but telling the truth. (29)

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Clearly Ginsberg had not “yet” managed (as John Ashbery puts it) to “put it all down” (Three Poems 3).
The intention, however, is there. Ginsberg is prepared to “wait till the sky / appears as it is.” After all,
what else is worth telling if not the truth? And what is truth, after all, if not all there is to say?

In 1949, one imagines, Ginsberg’s title would have read like a challenge: challenging the poet to a
sublime response. Had Sanders reread Ginsberg’s poem in 1976 as he prepared Investigative Poetry,
its title could, or should, have read much more like a problem. Thus, in the first place, it is possible that
Ginsberg has already said all that Sanders himself might want to say. What can Sanders add after
Ginsberg, by whom he is so impressed, has commented on the historical present of which they are both
a part? This is a serious but not a devastating difficulty. Sanders can evade the obsolescence the
problem implies if he can eke out areas of his own experience for which Ginsberg, for all his
capaciousness, has not accounted. A second, much more serious possibility is that the very rhetoric of
“All” has itself, by 1976, some twenty-seven years after Ginsberg began to feel for its contours, become
hollow. Arguably, that is, the poet who speaks of the “era of the description of the All” is no longer, in
any real sense, issuing a sublime challenge but is settling instead into a kind of shorthand (a catchall if
you will) that serves no longer to sharpen but actually to dull the attention. Glossed in this way,
Ginsberg’s question, echoing ironically down the years, comes to seem ominous indeed: “After All, What
Else Is There to Say?”

The purpose of this essay is to answer that question. I want to consider what else Sanders has found to
say, consider how he has advanced an aesthetic (the Beat aesthetic) that he finds so deeply
compelling. To do this, I must start with Ginsberg and in particular with an appreciation of how he came
to write with the impact he did. The nature of Ginsberg’s poetic achievement, I will suggest, predicts the
nature of Sanders’s.

For all its characteristic spontaneity, “Howl,” as James Breslin has observed, was a long time in the
making (77-109). Ginsberg himself claimed he first had an inkling that he might write a poem in that
style when, while reading Blake, he had a hallucinatory vision in which the poet spoke to him (Breslin
79-83). More prosaically, one can perhaps identify three phases in Ginsberg’s early poetry, each
constituting a stage in development of the aesthetic that finally found utterance in “Howl.” These phases
can be characterized, following John Muckle, in terms of the act of naming.

Consider the closing lines of “In Society,” the first poem in Ginsberg’s Collected Poems. The narrator is
at a cocktail party (in the society of the “In Society”):

She glared at me and
said immediately: “I don’t like you,”
turned her head away, and refused
to be introduced. I said, “What!”
in outrage. “Why you shit-faced fool!”
This got everybody’s attention.
“Why you narcissistic bitch! How
can you decide when you don’t even
know me,” I continued in a violent
and messianic voice, inspired at

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last, dominating the whole room. (3)
Early as it is, and for all its crudeness, this passage contains many of the elements from which Ginsberg
would come to fuse his Beat aesthetic. Its angle of vision is telling. Whereas Prufrock was happy to
observe the comings and goings of society women from outside and so to accept both his own
exclusion and the principle of exclusion, Ginsberg’s narrator blunders in uninvited, determined to
become involved. Indeed, one can already see his rhetoric beginning to congeal around the principle of
exclusion: the woman’s refusal to be “introduced” stimulating the narrator’s “outrage.” And as he
negotiates the ins and outs of polite society, one can hear Ginsberg feeling toward a name for his
attitude to that society and toward a theme through which to examine it. Thus, in the woman’s refusal to
speak to the narrator, one glimpses Ginsberg’s reciprocal refusal of the values she articulates, his
subsequent social status as a refusenik, and his Baudelairean fascination with the garbage (the refuse)
of American society. In “In Society,” then, Ginsberg can be observed struggling to name elements that
will become crucial to his mature style.(n1)

The second phase of Ginsberg’s early career finds the poet moving beyond the nomination of a general
category and beginning to identify those elements in American culture that are refused: that which
America has made abject. The shift is entirely self-conscious. “Stanzas: Written at Night in Radio City”

No more of this too pretty talk,
Dead glimpses of apocalypse:
The child pissing off the rock,
Or woman withered in the lips,
Contemplate the unseen Cock
That crows all beasts to ecstasy…. (28)
The word apocalypse is carefully chosen. Ginsberg is declaring an intention to devastate American
society by revealing that which it would choose to conceal: “child pissing,” “woman withered,” “unseen
Cock.” Advances in Ginsberg’s aesthetic are thus increasingly marked by a naming of things
conventionally unspeakable. “Paterson,” written in 1949, is exemplary. Refusing “rooms papered with
visions of money,” Ginsberg wonders what will happen

If I put new heels on my shoes, bathe my body reeking of masturbation and sweat, layer upon layer of
excrement dried in employment bureaus, magazine hallways, statistical cubicles, factory stairways ….

Instead of settling for the “dumbbells of the ego with money and power,” Ginsberg would rather jar my
body down the road, crying by a diner in the Western sun; rather crawl on my naked belly over the
tincans of Cincinnati; rather drag a rotten railroad tie to a Golgotha in the Rockies …. (40)

“Paterson” is the first poem in which Ginsberg begins to find a truly distinctive measure for
contemporary America. In certain respects, of course, that measure is familiar. The long, inclusive lines
are Whitman’s, and the journey west is the stuff of national mythology. But without attempting to obscure
either inheritance, Ginsberg twists form and content into contemporary shape. Instead of loafing along
Whitman lines, Ginsberg crawls, and where the journey west signaled progress and the new Jerusalem,
now it implies Golgotha. With “a mouthful of shit, and the hair raising on my scalp,” “Paterson” finds a
new set of terms through which to interpret the American way, a set of terms novel and powerful enough

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to require a name.

The third phase of Ginsberg’s early career is a search for that name, and it is with “Sakyamuni Coming
out from the Mountain,” written in 1952, that he begins to define his vision:

He drags his bare feet
out of a cave
under a tree,
grown long with weeping
and hooknosed woe,
in ragged soft robes
wearing a fine beard,
unhappy hands
clasped to his naked breast–
humility is beatness
humility is beatness–(90)
Bearded, barefoot, clothed only in “ragged soft robes,” Ginsberg cuts a recognizable figure here. He has
begun to find a form of self-definition, through his researches into Buddhism, with which he can feel
comfortable. And with self-definition comes aesthetic definition, the mantra–“humility is beatness”–
formulating an attitude that had been evolving in his poetry for some years, but with a simplicity that has
hitherto exceeded his grasp. It is with “Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo,” however, one of the last poems
written before “Howl,” that Ginsberg finally achieved an aesthetic formulation strong enough to underpin
an influential work of art:

Ah don’t think I’m sickening.
You’re angry at me. For all my lovers?
It’s hard to eat shit, without having visions;
when they have eyes for me it’s like Heaven. (123)
“Howl” is an exploration of the contention that “It’s hard to eat shit, without having visions.” Following a
memorably simple structure, the poem first presents the refuseniks, then that which they refuse, then
envisions a new world, the keystone of which, as the refrain “I’m with you in Rockland” makes clear, is
solidarity. Crucially, the poem is not a straightforward celebration of Beat values but rather a measure of
the cost of refusing. The Beats refuse, are refused, and so are left among the garbage. Better, the poem
proposes, to be among the garbage hallucinating angels than sacrificing the next generation to Moloch.
Better still, however, to be in Rockland, “where we hug and kiss the United States” (133). This sense of
the cost of Beatnik choice is crucial to Ginsberg. To be Beat is not simply to drop out (as Timothy
Leary’s later, weaker definition suggested). Rather, it is to make a sacrifice, Ginsberg himself having
seen the best minds of his generation sacrifice themselves to a refusal of the values incorporated by
Moloch. “Howl” names the cost of this sacrifice. It names, that is, the cost of living in contemporary
America. That poem proved a defining moment in American literary history, and that it redefined
otherwise nonliterary lives in the way Sanders’s story shows, testifies to a simplicity of vision born of
Ginsberg’s ongoing effort to name all that he saw.

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In “A Book of Verse” Sanders described how “Howl” “ripped into his mind like the tornado that had
uprooted the cherry tree in his backyard when he was a child” (Tales 281). The question, arising from
this order of influence was, how does the poet for whom Ginsberg proves such a transformative early
reading experience proceed to write without simply reproducing Ginsberg’s point of view? John Muckle
has indicated one way out of the impasse this question would seem to imply. In his essay “The Names:
Allen Ginsberg’s Writings,” Muckle notes that Gertrude Stein “speaks of poetry as naming, prose as
telling how the names became names. From an original unity of these functions in epic, poetry and
narrative have developed a cleavage in which one names and the other tells” (14). For Muckle,
therefore, Ginsberg is an important poet because, like Whitman before him, he shows an awareness of
“America’s need for new nomenclatures” (14). Following this imaginative application of Stein’s
formulation to the context of Beat writing, one can usefully conceive of Sanders as a poet caught
between functions. If the force, and so the impact, of Ginsberg’s writing lies very largely in its willingness
to dare a new nomenclature, then it should not be surprising to find Sanders, on occasion, also engaged
in the act of naming, in the Adamic act of carrying the Beat idiom into new areas of experience. Yet
precisely because that idiom precedes him, Sanders is aware that the need to name is less pressing
than it was. Accordingly, and prudently one might think, Sanders chooses to contribute to the Beat
aesthetic in large part by “telling how the names became the names.” This might explain the narrative
drift in Sanders’s poetic manifesto: “Investigative Poetry: that poetry should again assume responsibility
for the description of history” (Investigative Poetry 3). It might also explain the characteristic poem:
narrative in form; prosy in texture; concerned, invariably, to tell the story of the emergence of the Beat
sensibility. Sanders, then, can be understood as a poet poised between the compulsion to name and
the obligation to narrate. To understand what it means to be so poised, I will explore his relation to the
Beat aesthetic through three categories central to his writing: controls, histories, and journeys.

“Poem from Jail,” the first work in Sanders’s Selected Poems, was written during his imprisonment (for
seventy-five days) following his participation in the protest against the commissioning of the Polaris
nuclear submarine Ethan Allen (Thirsting 238-41). This direct contact with a confining social institution
proved foundational to Sanders’s poetry, giving rise to a sustained (career-long) meditation on forms of
social control. The experience of jail was, of course, Sanders’s own.(n2) Control, however, was a theme
already much explored by Beat writing, “Howl” in particular, making it its business to name the
mechanisms of social control (Moloch). It is in his variation on this theme that Sanders registers most
clearly the difficulties of writing after Ginsberg.

This is not to deny that in certain respects Sanders extends and deepens the Beat analysis of control.
His outstanding volume in this respect is Egyptian Hieroglyphics (1973). The volume is not without its
measure of strain, casting as far back as “Ab-Mer: A Love Story of 1985 B.C.” and as far forward as
“A.D. 20,000” in an attempt to find new poetic territory. As these temporal extremes indicate, however,
Egyptian Hieroglyphics is Sanders’s most experimental volume, and through these experiments he
advances the Beat appreciation of social control. In particular, he develops a nuanced idiom for the
description of forms of surveillance.(n3) Starting with “The Singer” and concluding with “Report: Council
of Eye-Forms Data Squad,” Sanders devotes a series of poems to this question, the aim of which is to
render what might be termed a post-Watergate sensibility, the outcome being a poetry derived from the
idiom of the case report:

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Dimensional Adjustment Procedures enabled the
Eye-Form Surveillance Team to observe the Princess
arriving in the first sections of the Underworld. (Thirsting 115)

Sanders’s response, in turn, to the fact of surveillance is the
rhetoric of “investigation.” “The Age” opens with the declaration

This is the Age of Investigation, and every citizen must
investigate! For the pallid tracks of guilt and death,
slight as they are, suffuse upon the retentive
electromagnetic data-retrieval systems of our era.
(Thirsting 137)
Investigation is Sanders’s big idea: witness his confident proclamation of it here and his extended
exploration of its implications in his manifesto. And it is, in fact, a skillful development of Beat rhetoric.
The effect of the term is to adjust the spirit of avant-garde inquiry to the demands of an environment in
which state power is increasingly intrusive. Investigative Poetry is therefore an act of naming, Sanders
endeavoring to name the aesthetic procedure by which poetry can usefully engage with modern forms
of social control. With his rhetoric of investigation Sanders can confidently be thought to have achieved
a way of writing after “Howl.”

By the same token, it is hardly deniable that it is in his endeavor to advance the Beat inquiry into the
thematics of control that Sanders demonstrates most clearly the difficulties of his position. His attempts,
for instance, to continue the testing of taboos and his efforts to extend the language of excess invariably
result in a form of poetic utterance that serves only to parody the Beat achievement. “Elm-Fuck Poem”
is a case in point:

The ba ba lanolin fur-ears
Trembling Lamb
where I enter the
matted meat
of trembly sheep
and the cunt warm
& woman sized
offered by the lamb. (Thirsting 47)
No doubt the justification for such a poem has to do with organicism. It does not seem humorless to
suggest, however, that poetry of this sort is much more likely to entrench gender oppression than it is to
liberate its reader from sexual constraints. And if the desire to continue to test the limits of social control
can find Sanders producing the kind of gratuitous poetry that gives Beat a bad name, so his analysis of
the mechanisms of social control too often results in a distorted sense of the poet’s role. Thus in
Investigative Poetry Sanders urges the reader not to “forget for one microsecond that the government
throughout history has tried to suppress, stamp down, hinder dissident or left-wing poets” (12). There is
more than a whiff of paranoia here, and arguably that intense anxiety has as much to do with the

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compulsion to find ways of writing about control after “Howl” as it has to do with the post-Watergate
climate in which the poem was written. Either way it is a paranoid vision that generates a dismayingly
partial view of the poet’s function. Thus Blake is observed to “back away from historical poetry and to
retreat, if that is the word, into a poetry of symbols” (Investigative Poetry 12). As if symbolism had
nothing to do with poetry–as if it had nothing to do with Beat.

To recall Stein’s formulation, Sanders’s efforts to develop the Beat nomenclature measure the difficulty
of coming after. After all, what else is there to say? His investigation of the theme of control, though
marked by a certain deepening, has tended to lead him down blind alleys, exploring corners of
experience and writing that have gone unnamed precisely because they are of peripheral significance.
His response to this difficulty, as Muckle’s equation and Ginsberg’s achievement predict, has been
increasingly to tell the story, one way or another, of the emergence of the Beat sensibility, of how the
names became the names. This should not be thought to represent a falling off. Sanders, as Tales of
Beatnik Glory shows, tells a good story. He is also intimate, as his anxious relationship with Ginsberg
makes clear, with the inner workings of the Beat aesthetic. Arguably, the story of the aesthetic is his
proper subject. In telling that story, Sanders sometimes dwells directly, as in his Tales, on his part in the
history of the Beat period. The poem “Ramamir,” for instance, relates a late-fifties love affair, whereas
“Sappho on East Seventh” recalls the visions of an ambitious young poet. Invariably, though, his more
ambitious intention is to contextualize the Beat way of being. What such contextualizing amounts to is
an ongoing study of historical subcultures and bohemian milieus. These studies start with “Egyptian
Hieroglyphics,” which, as Sanders observes, were “inspired by researchers into possible artistic
rebellion in the rather totalitarian milieu of ancient Egypt. I was looking for Lost Generations, for sistra-
shaking Dadaists in tent towns on the edge of half-finished pyramids, for cubists in basalt, for free-
speech movements on papyrus” (Thirsting 244). He was looking, that is, for a genealogy of dissent, for a
historical angle of vision that shows the Beat project to be not a momentary aberration but a further
eruption of a vibrant radical tradition. “Yiddish-Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side” traces that
genealogy closer to home, telling how the arrival of East European emigres in the first decade of the
century radicalized the quarter the Beats would later make their own. More recently, Chekhov,
Sanders’s extended verse biography of the Russian writer, amounts to a study of dissent in czarist
Russia. With the names already named, the second generation of Beat writers was allocated the more
prosaic task of telling how the names became the names. Sanders’s histories of poetic dissent
constitute an effective strategy for writing after Ginsberg.

It is, however, in his development of the trope of the journey that Sanders has dealt most effectively with
his particular anxieties of influence. The journey is, of course, pivotal to the rhetoric of Beat inquiry,
affording an opportunity both to critique and to revitalize the American experience. In both On the Road
and Naked Lunch progress west is displaced by an itinerant, unsettled lifestyle, whereas the idea of the
frontier is transformed from a colonial limit to a pragmatic encounter with the new. For Ginsberg in
particular, the journey thus carries religious overtones, Beat becoming a pilgrimage by which the
revelation is perpetually earned. In “The Green Automobile” the car proves a form not just of
transportation but of transport, in which

we’d batter up the cloudy highway
where the angels of anxiety

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careen through the trees
and scream out of the engine. (Ginsberg 83)
Broadly speaking, then, Sanders’s poetic journeying locates his writing in the Beat tradition. There is a
more precise sense, however, in which the idea of the journey comes to enable Sanders to explore his
relation to the Beat aesthetic. The journey affords his poetry a structure, but one which is loose enough
not to restrict inquiry. Formally speaking, it enables the poet both to relate a story (of how one traveled
from a to b) and to digress into areas of his own experience. It permits him, in other words, to mediate
the differing functions of narrating and naming. Accordingly, it is through the trope of the journey that
Sanders is most able to negotiate his relation to his immediate predecessors, is most able to sustain the
momentum of the Beat movement while arriving at observations distinctively his own.

In the note to “Poem from Jail” Sanders observes that “It was my first work, after years of search, that I
felt fit in with the best of my generation” (Thirsting 241). Sanders’s reflection betrays an anxiety. The
poem is a product of both years of search (so by implication the desire to find something differentiating
to say) and a desire to fit in with the best of his generation. The anxiety of influence that results from
these competing compulsions is apparent in the rhetorical texture of “Poem from Jail.” A passage from
the first part of the poem recalls how

we have seen denied
Mao’s creation,
And we have denied
van Gogh’s crow
shrieking on the
and Rouault’s Jesus.
Chant Chant
O American!
lift up the Stele
anti bomb. (Thirsting 5)
Despite the “shrieking” and chanting, one would not mistake this for a passage from Ginsberg. The
collage of sources is Ginsberg-like, but the sources themselves are not. Yet if this is not Ginsberg’s
rhetoric, one could not confidently say that it was Sanders’s either. The passage is characterized not by
an identity of its own but by a determination not to be subsumed by another’s identity. This explains the
wilfully eclectic range of sources: Mao, van Gogh, Rouault. It also explains the fact that those sources
do not combine to generate anything one could reasonably call a style.

That Sanders should be so determined for the surface of his poem to mark an evasion of Ginsberg’s
influence comes, I would suggest, from his nagging awareness that at a structural level “Poem from Jail”
is heavily indebted. The poem takes its form from the opposition between two forms of journey,
undertaken by two kinds of traveler. The first is of mythic proportions, his journey being the wanderings
of a visionary:

O American
O Traveller.

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The Sun boat
enters the Vastness
Anubis stomps
with the sun shafts,
& the man awaits,
the sun, the
eye of the
Trembling Lamb.

In the second journey the road “twisted / like a knife /
across the desert” while

I crawled,
clutching guts
and coughing blood,
scrawling poems
on rocks
with a charred log.

The poem aims throughout for a resolution of these two forms of
motion, achieving it, finally, at “Goof City” where the reward
for the journeying is revelation:

Bristling in the
bat black,
mind spews out to Nebulae;
balling the All;
Darkness; swivelled
into the Mountain;
Shriek it All!
Wand waved
over the thigh!
Sucked to the
Universal hole. (Thirsting 9, 24, 27)
All that this apocalyptic scene really reveals, however, is quite how conditioned Sanders is, at this early
stage in his career, by Ginsberg’s way of seeing. The howl has become a shriek, but as the poem is
sucked into the “Vortex,” the idiom reveals that Sanders’s “All” is in fact Ginsberg’s “All.” The poem
arrives at such a neo-Ginsberg scene because of its means of travel. The process whereby spiritual and
destitute journeys–pilgrimage and crawl–come to terminate at Goof City so exactly reduces the
passage through “shit” and “visions” that takes Ginsberg to “Rockland” (and which forms the structure of
“Howl”) that the outcome can hardly be different. For all its seeming mobility, then, “Poem from Jail” is,

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in fact, another static poem, caught, one might say, in the wheel ruts of another poet’s “Green
Automobile.” It does represent, however, a breakthrough of sorts, as Sanders’s annotation indicates,
insofar as it does at least identify the journey as a means of engaging the Beat aesthetic.

One measure of Sanders’s subsequent poetic development is precisely the degree to which he has
proved able to adjust the trope of the journey to his own perceptions. “The Pilgrimage,” for instance,
opens by tracing a route:

There is nothing on the
wet morning grass
not even a mound
to mark the grave.
I have started in the
shade of the walnut
tree & walked
up the hill
to make my
proskynesis at thy altar
O daughter of Ra. (Thirsting 40)
This is an altogether less anxious piece of writing than anything to be found in “Poem from Jail.” Thus,
for all the echoes in the title, Sanders does not here reproduce a Ginsberg journey but uses his
familiarity with Ginsberg’s forms to appreciate his own experience. This is explicitly Sanders’s
pilgrimage, and he arrives at a voice much more his own, not out of the need to distinguish himself, but
out of the need to detail the private significance of the visit he has made. The poem thus finds Sanders
using Beat forms to get close to his own experience. And yet in a dialectical (rather than a contradictory)
respect the poem also shows how deeply informed Sanders’s thinking has become by the rhetoric of the
journey. Intensely lyrical as it is, the graveside contemplation is a potentially static experience.
Sanders’s imagination, however, has been mobilized by his encounter with the Beat aesthetic. The
journey (if only from the walnut tree to the hill) has become the form of his experience.

“A Flower from Robert Kennedy’s Grave” marks a further development in Sanders’s handling of the
trope of the journey. Addressing the occasion of Nixon’s second inauguration (20 January 1973), the
poem observes both how “Richard Nixon / oozed down Pennsylvania Avenue / flashing V’s from a
limousine” and how the poet, after having demonstrated against the proceedings, walked

past the guardhouse
circling circling
around the Catholic henge

coming finally to pick

a yellow petal

from thy grave

2/4/2016 EBSCOhost… 12/13

Mr. Robert Kennedy. (Thirsting 80-81)
Here again the poem follows Ginsberg in its formal dependence on the idea of the pilgrimage. But here
more than ever Sanders’s confident handling of that idea signifies an independent poetic intelligence. By
visiting Bobby Kennedy’s grave, Sanders crosses the line that divides private feelings from civic protest,
signaling an intimacy with a public figure that shows in turn that politics is a matter not of distant
institutions but of individual lives. And if Sanders shows here that he has succeeded in adapting a
Ginsberg motif to his own purposes, the confidence this gesture signifies is perhaps measured by his
self-conscious allusion to “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” So far has his engagement with
Ginsberg developed, that he is now willing to risk comparison with Whitman.

It is Sanders’s long narrative poem “The V.F.W. Crawling Contest,” however, that most marks the
development, through the trope of the journey, of his engagement with the Beat aesthetic. Describing
the poem’s history, Sanders notes how “For years I had wanted to write this poem of the long, groaning
road. It was sort of a secular version of the more mystic crawl at the end of `Poem From Jail'” (Thirsting
243). Ginsberg, it will be recalled, was crawling long before Sanders–on his “naked belly over the
tincans of Cincinnati.” But if the crawling in “Poem from Jail” showed the tentativeness of imitated
behavior, Sanders in “The V.F.W. Crawling Contest” makes so bold with the central metaphor as to
sever any connection to Ginsberg. The poem narrates a journey, made on hands and knees, through
the United States. If its commentary on contemporary American ways recalls any Beat predecessor, it is
probably Burroughs. Comparison seems inappropriate, however, because the sustained tone of wry
disgust this poem manages is more than ever Sanders’s own:

As I approached the
drive-in restaurant

saliva began to drip from
my crust-cambered lips

No automobiles parked
silently full of potato-eating
did leave the lot
as I rounded
the bend
out of a clump
of ditch weeds

“a hot dog
& baked beans please
just drop it in the tar.” (Thirsting 68)
With “The V.F.W. Crawling Contest” Sanders arrives at a genuinely persuasive way of writing after
“Howl.” In dealing ironically with the same abjection that fueled Ginsberg’s rage, he finds a way of
referring again to aspects of American life the older poet has already named. It might be argued that
such a recourse to the doubleness of irony marks a falling off from the grace of Ginsberg’s original,

2/4/2016 EBSCOhost… 13/13

beatific vision. Possibly also, however, it provides a means of continuing the Beat journey beyond the
point at which pure outrage is spent.

(n1) The result is damagingly unrefined. Seeking rather than commanding attention, Ginsberg draws on
the language of misogyny to make his presence felt, an act of self-contradictory idiomatic exclusion that
is compounded by his unreflective willingness to dominate the whole room. Ginsberg’s misogynist
rhetoric is not, of course, merely a function of his youthfulness, Beat writing generally being marked by
masculinities of one sort or another. Sanders, as I indicate below, provides no exception.

(n2) This experience is vividly represented in Sanders’s Chekhovian story “The AEC Sit-In” (Tales 223-

(n3) Sanders’s task here is perhaps to advance Burroughs’s insights rather than Ginsberg’s, Naked
Lunch being a handbook of observational techniques of all kinds.

Ashbery, John. Three Poems. New York: Ecco, 1972.

Breslin, James. From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965. Chicago: Univ. of
Chicago Press, 1984.

Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems 1947-1980. New York: Harper, 1984.

Muckle, John. “The Names: Allen Ginsberg’s Writings.” The Beat Generation Writers. Ed. A. Robert Lee.
London: Pluto, 1996.10-36.

Sanders, Ed. Investigative Poetry. San Francisco: City Lights, 1976.

—–. Tales of Beatnik Glory. 2 vols. New York: Citadel-Carol, 1990.

—–. Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century: Selected Poems 19611985. Minneapolis: Coffee House,

By David Herd

Copyright of Review of Contemporary Fiction is the property of Dalkey Archive Press and its content
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