In his essay The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley describes his experiences after taking a dose of mescaline. At the end of the book, he makes this observation:
That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul. […] And for private, for everyday use there have always been chemical intoxicants. All the vegetable sedatives and narcotics, all the euphorics that grow on trees, the hallucinogens that ripen in berries or can be squeezed from roots – all, without exception, have been known and systematically used by human beings from time immemorial.
The use of the term Artificial Paradises by Huxley refers to a book by Charles Baudelaire, Les Paradis Artificiels, which describes Baudelaire’s experiences with hashish. Just as men have longed “to escape, [...] to transcend themselves”, so have writers tried to capture the experience on the page.
Let’s call these attempts to capture the drug experience in printed form "literature of substance" -- "substance" being a word used by David Foster Wallace to very effectively describe agents that get you high, ranging from weed to peyote, and encompassing alcohol and all other chemical and natural concoctions that are used by mankind to escape or transcend.
If proof is ever needed that some of our most talented creative geniuses keep a low profile, we only need to look to Richard Hell, an experimental poet, ex-punk star, novelist and now memoirist, who lives a humble but glorious life around downtown New York City and graces us with a new book every few years. He is one of my favorite living writers, a marvelously inventive and truthful observer of humanity and critic of life. His new book is a bratty and colorful autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.
Born somewhere in the United States of America to a Jewish psychologist father and a southern Methodist mother, Hell quickly booked out of there and headed for New York City, where he made a living working in bookstores and cinemaphile collector shops and eventually played bass guitar, wrote and sang for three seminal punk rock bands, Television, the Heartbreakers (with Johnny Thunders, not Tom Petty), and finally his own outfit, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He had a signature hit with the Voidoids, "Blank Generation", but found that he was not cut out for the rock star life -- not even with all the heroin and crystal meth he applied to heal the pain.
He retired from rock in the early 80s to become a full-time writer, even though this meant he'd be scraping for a living until his dying day (as far as I know, has never attempted a lame "comeback" as a musician, though many old Voidoids fans like myself would surely like him to). He proved himself as a serious novelist in 1997 with Go Now, a tale of twisted love, and again in 2005 with Godlike, a modern-day retelling of the literary legend of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. I could not resist quoting this author liberally when I reviewed Godlike on this blog in 2005, because his shimmering nuggets of prose are simply so beautiful that I enjoy typing them in. After reading I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, I feel an urge to honor this excellent book by sharing quotes again.
It's springtime! How about writing a poem?
This page is open for anyone to contribute a short or long poem, on any subject or idea, in any style, or to respond to anyone else's poem. Please use the comment form below to post a poem.
The first time that I saw Andy Clausen read poetry was in the summer of 1980, at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Andy was scheduled to read one night as part of a three-person bill, along with Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen. I had expected that the youngest of the three poets, then 36 years old, would be the opening act, but Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen let Andy close the show, symbolically passing along a poetry torch. With his deep oratorical voice, and poetry filled with extraordinary energy, insight, humor, and imagination Andy gave a reading that night which left a lasting impression. The poem that I remember most from that evening was his long poem, “An Open Letter to the Russian People,” with its explorations of the historic hypocrisies and exploitations, sometimes fatal, of both the American and Soviet governments, and its visionary insistence that artists and working people of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. could one day figure out how to put an end to the physically and psychically damaging Cold War: “No more guilt American O Russian / The Freedom to choose Peace—/ Jesus! How badly our governments behave! / Brothers & Sisters / THE GENERAL STRIKE! / NOW!”
Andy Clausen was born in a Belgium bomb shelter in 1943, and moved to Oakland, California at age three, at the end of the Second World War. After graduating from high school, he became a Golden Gloves boxer and, for a brief time, joined the Marines, which he left in 1966 after watching Allen Ginsberg on TV read his anti-Vietnam War poem, "Wichita Vortex Sutra". The line from Allen's poem that caught Andy’s attention and changed the direction of his life was the simple but poignant, humanizing question: "Has anyone looked in the eyes of the dead?"
An old Litkicks friend, Clay "Lightning Rod" January of Texas, died of cancer this week. If you hung around this website during our message board years, there's no doubt that you remember Clay. He was one of the best writers on the website, the owner of a sly and subversive voice.
I interacted often with Clay, especially on the Action Poetry boards, where I would often yell at him to stop posting too often, but he had such a good sense of humor about it that I could never be mad at him long. We met in person several times for poetry readings in Virginia, Washington DC, Maryland and New York, and he was awesome and fun to hang out with. He was an old and very skinny man with long graying hair, and it was clear from his poems that he had done some hard travelling in his years, and had carried a few monkeys on his back.
He liked to call himself Lightning Rod (as a poet and a musician) but insisted to me that Clay January was his real name. I never believed him, but I always believed the truths behind the tall tales he told. He carried himself with a youthful, pixie-ish energy, he never let go of his wide smile, and he gathered friends easily wherever he went. I'm happy to have been one of the friends he gathered.
Some people have asked me how Action Poetry works on Litkicks. It's so simple. You read other people's poems and post one of your own, and other people do the same. This month's illustration is a wire sculpture of a mule by sculptor and spoken-word poet Mark 'Wireman' Coburn. Now, please write us a poem!
I've never heard of the poet Kenneth Sherman before, but a freewheeling interview with Laura Albert at the Jewish Daily Forward has called my attention to his newly republished book, Words for Elephant's Man, which was first published in 1983.
Elephant Man was a movie by David Lynch about a real-life man named Joseph Merrick who suffered from a horrible skin-and-bone growth disease (before the David Lynch movie, Elephant Man was also a Broadway play that starred David Bowie, though strangely the two works with the same title and the same subject were written separately). This movie's sense of deep physical and psychic alienation is a big theme in the mind of Kenneth Sherman. Laura Albert, who contributed (in the guise of her past doppelganger J. T. Leroy) to the screenplay of the haunting Gus Van Sant movie Elephant can clearly relate:
We can all use some poetry right now. Whether we're writing it or reading it, we can all use some.
Action Poetry is open to anyone ... either post an original poem (using the comment form below) or respond in verse to somebody else.
For those who appreciate contemporary poetry, the re-release in digital format—by Ginsberg Recordings, a new collaborative partnership between The Allen Ginsberg Estate and the Esther Creative Group—of the most comprehensive of Allen Ginsberg’s recording projects, the 4-volume set, Holy Soul Jelly Roll (originally released as a box set 18 years ago by Rhino Records), will come as welcome news.
We live in an era in which the clamor for, and urgency of, progressive social change has become widely apparent, as evidenced by the rise of democratic protest movements across the globe, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street—, and on the coin’s other side by the growing and Life-on-Earth-threatening danger of climate change, whose already-significant impact was once again just demonstrated in the widespread and destructive power of Hurricane Sandy. And yet, we also live in an age in which it is sometimes difficult to know whether people’s time-consuming efforts “to make a difference” can really make a difference. After all, the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt has thus far been followed by the rise of an oppressive Muslim Brotherhood government, and the gradual decline, at least temporarily, of the U.S. Occupy movement has thus far been followed by ... well, that answer is not yet clear.
Efrat Ben Zur, a talented young Israeli singer with a forceful style that reminds me of a lot of Natalie Merchant and just a little bit of Sinead O'Connor, has released an entire album of songs based on Emily Dickinson poems. Here's her spin on "I'm Nobody", a short, fascinating enigma from Dickinson's found works, rendered here into powerful rhythm and melody:
The album can be downloaded here.