BEATS IN KANSAS program sponsored by Humanities Kansas, April 7, 2019
Beat Writers of Kansas: The Lawrence-Wichita Magnetic Pole by Denise Low
The book, The Beats, edited by Seymour Krim, is where my story begins. In the mid-1960s I was a junior high kid in Emporia, when I found this paperback book in a newsstand. George Laughead has told me, how at about the same time in Dodge City, he found The Beats and began his awakening to alternative literature. The book influenced many of us as soon as we could get to a bookstore without parental supervision. It abetted our rebellions.
This first Beatnik anthology, copyright 1960, includes Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Diane Di Prima, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti—twenty-five writers in all. Wichitan Charley Plymell moved to San Francisco after this book was published by an East Coast press. Michael McClure also is missing. But still, it is a good snapshot of the first decade of the movement.
In the 1950s, Beats began using psychotropic drugs, drinking, writing, and art-ing together in New York City and San Francisco. The bicoastal interaction, between the hip Village scene in the East, and the Asian-influenced West, created a vital dynamic. Gary Snyder was the first writer to bring Zen meditation from Japan to the U.S., to California, as he told me himself,. He is the ultimate West Coast beat writer, with his respect for Indigenous narratives and for processes of nature. His first book was Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems (1959). Burroughs, with his suits and uptown bearing, might represent the East Coast Beatnik. Both places fostered interest in alternatives forms of consciousness, whether through Zen, meditation learned in India, psilocybin, uppers, downers, or alcohol—or admixtures of all. Both Beat hangouts in New York and San Francisco were havens for gay people, which is no coincidence. And Kansas—well it is in the middle. All roads go through Kansas, and I understand there was a gay bar in Wichita and a gay culture in Lawrence.
Writers especially are the spokespersons for the Beat movement, and milestone publications are Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956), Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), and William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959). Each has had a tremendous influence on literature. Howl refreshes Walt Whitman’s distinctive style and breaks down academic rules of poetics. On the Road uses stream-of-consciousness as a strategy and celebrates the American anti-hero. It also develops the distinctive road trip theme of United States literature. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch led to a censorship trial over its perceived obscenity. The first amendment was upheld, finally, in 1966. This is a landmark legal case.
Beat writers found their work unattractive to the literary establishment, and I once heard scuttlebutt that Ginsberg was stung by his rejections from major poetry publications. Karl Shapiro, a powerful critic, champions the Beats in the New York Times Sunday Review of Books when he describes the status quo of 1960: “’Modern American poetry is rightly called academic; it is textbook poetry, good for teaching. . . . But nobody reads it except around examination time’” (9). Krim writes up a description of what Beat writing stand for, beyond rebellion:
Beat and hip writing—with its 1960-sudden combination of realism, surrealism, drastic out-in-the-open acts of murder and love that do justice to what had been sickly saved up for centuries, and with its jazz sentences and bad grammar or no grammar or new grammar—has the excesses and rawness of every unmapped revolt; but why pick on its goofs rather than the enormously positive power and Voice of the movement, which even a deaf man can hear? (10)
This is still a good overview of the writing, especially the break-down of the formality of sentences. Beat poetics abetted Black Mountain poets and led to Language Poetry—and an explosion of new entries into literary expression.
Ginsberg is the most vocal of the Beat poets, and both Wichita and Lawrence share stories of his visits. Kansas appears early in Ginsberg’s career, 1956, in Howl, the 22nd line: “who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas.” He refers to Kansas as a mystical place where cosmic vibrations intersect.
In the 1959 poem in Krim’s collection, “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear,” Ginsberg begins another poem with a reference to Kansas:
Poet is priest
Money has reckoned the soul of America
Congress broken thru to the precipice of Eternity
the president built a war machine which will vomit and
rear up Russia out of Kansas
The American century betrayed by a mad Senate which no
longer sleeps with its wife (149)
Kansas here is a geographic counterpart to Russia, representing the whole of the United States as a synecdoche. In Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Ginsberg expands his idea of Kansas with Wichita place names,
Ginsberg was a secular pilgrim when he traveled to Kansas, which already was an important part of his poetic geography. According to James Johnson, Ginsberg wanted to visit Wichita because: “He wanted to see the city that produced so many great minds and so many weapons of Death.” His friendships with Wichita-connected Beats made an impression on him, according to the interviews in the Wichita Vortex documentary film, especially Charley Plymell, Michael McClure, Robert Branaman, Bruce Conner, and David Haselwood. “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” written in 1966, begins “I’m an old man now, and a lonesome man in Kansas.” The poem interweaves snippets of Vietnam War facts with Kansas landscape and history. With his visit to Wichita, he knit together his imagined poetic Kansas with specific site references.
One of my great regrets was that I attended KU a year after Ginsberg visited Kansas, including Lawrence. The stories of Ginsberg were still fresh and influenced the arts scene at K.U. The wonderful Abington Bookstore was a revelation, and I bought Ginsberg’s books there. Those were wild times. I had a boyfriend in the 1960s who had turned Jack Kerouac onto peyote—he was a Lakota guy. A man rooming in my boarding house, Gene Bernofsky, had been part of the LSD experiments at Harvard in the 1960s and had lived at Drop City. Edward Dorn spent a semester in Lawrence and vied to get a position despite showing up to class ripped. And so forth.
Through the 1970s and into the 1990s, Ginsberg made intermittent trips to Lawrence. First, he was brought as a visiting reader, and he packed ballrooms. He was a great musician and understood how to use sound, rhythm, and parables. Another perspective—he had worked in an ad agency in New York before his poetry career, and he understood how to promote himself. He understood staging, theatrics, spectacle. This skill, in my humble opinion, amplified the public profile of the Beats. He was a prime mover for that group.
After Burroughs moved to Lawrence in 1983, Ginsberg visited every year or so to maintain their close friendship. Burroughs had an appointment as a visiting writer-in-residence at KU—he was in his 60s and needed some retirement credits. He was required to do so many public appearances.
There were salons for him afterwards, where he and I were introduced. It was normal to run into part of his entourage, both the local residents like James Grauerholz, Wayne Propst, Ira Silverberg, sometimes George Laughead, and also the visitors— Allen, Anne Waldman, Keith Haring, Patti Smith, Kurt Cobain, Peter Weller, Steve Buscemi. Sometimes these were superficial sightings; other times I was lucky to be invited to dinner with Burroughs. He was a brilliant man who opened his mouth and paragraphs fell out. He had a keen interest in alternative consciousness of all sorts, not just drug-induced, and he had fascinating stories. He read a lot of science to research cutting edge discoveries and fringe areas like cryogenics. A man trained in Lakota ceremonies guided him through some ritual fasting. His acquisition of a section of Albert Einstein’s brain in Lawrence has been documented in the book Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain by Michael Paterniti. Shotgun art, the Gentleman’s Quarterly fashion shoot in Kansas City, the Japanese science fiction film crew—so many stories.
A bit about Gary Snyder in Lawrence. The KU Spencer Museum of Art has an excellent Asian collection. They had a series of lectures and conferences based on that collection, with Snyder as an honored guest several times in the 1970s and into the 1980s. The English Department co-sponsored some of his visits, and I was honored to interview him (with Robin Tawney) for Cottonwood Review. Snyder was such a powerful influence on the arts scene in Lawrence that people collected together their Gary Snyder dreams—which everyone had. He was social and enjoyed a number of informal meals with writers and Zen practitioners in Lawrence. His early explanations of ecopoetics had a large influence on my own writing and that of others.
Stories of the Beats, or near-Beats, go on and on. Kansas, the center of the vortex, is a complicated place, it is a place where much undisturbed land still exists, it is a place with an intersectional heritage—not quite East nor West, not Southern and not Northern. William S. Burroughs lived in Lawrence longer than anywhere else in his adult life. The Koch brothers are born and bred Kansans. Barack Obama’s grandparents who raised him are from outside Wichita. This is a place of contradictions. The Beat movement has braided into different channels, like the Arkansas River, but it has never stopped. No one story has the full truth; only listening to many stories approximates the real narrative.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear.” The Beats, ed. Seymour Krim. Fawcett, 1960. 149-153. This poem is reprinted from a Nov. 1959 London Times Literary Supplement issue.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl.” Poetry Foundation. Accessed April 4, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49303/howl
Grawe, Jim, producer/director/writer. Wichita Vortex: A KPTS Documentary. 2016. Accessed April 4, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NeSJNi0xcM
Johnson, James. “The Wichita Group.” Beats in Kansas (website maintained by George Laughead). Accessed April 5, 2019. http://www.vlib.us/beats/wichitagroup.html
Krim, Seymour. The Beats: A Gold Medal Anthology. Fawcett, 1960.
Paterniti, Michael. Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain. Dial Press, 2013.
Shapiro, Karl. Quoted in Krim, The Beats, p. 9.