Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Not Beaten and Not Defeated: Women of the Beat Generation (Book Review) by Alison Ross

Not Beaten and Not Defeated: Women of the Beat Generation
by Alison Ross

Twelve years ago, when I quit my nightmarish corporate job and took off for a six-month sojourn in Spain, I failed to reflect meaningfully on what it meant to be a woman fiercely seizing her innate autonomy. All I knew was, I was on the cusp of a deep depression working in a world where the vicious vices of narcissism and greed had mystifyingly mutated into virtues, and where the daily routine was so soul-sucking the specter of suicide took on a beatific quality. Living away for a time helped me cathartically cleanse myself of the corrosive negativity so rife in corporate world, and induced me to contemplate new career paths - namely, teaching.

So yes, Spain was an idyllic experience. I had already lived there once as a college student for a semester study abroad, so I had a linguistic and cultural familiarity with the place. This time around, however, I was much more "on my own." I had saved up the money myself (I had a tiny bit help from a family inheritance as well), I made all of the language school and living arrangements, and I made all of the travel plans. And of course I went there completely alone, not knowing a single soul. Previously, my university and parents had assisted my pre-travel efforts, and I met up with a group of study-abroaders like myself. But this time around I was 30, not 20, so I was fully capable of tackling such an endeavor sans help or companions.

But while the experience was grandly life-affirming, I took for granted that in previous generations, women were not as "free" societally to undertake such a transformative trip on their own. Sure, some of them flouted convention, but those that did dare to discern their natural autonomy were brutally branded for it, and those that did not condemned themselves to a suffocating subjugation to patriarchal "values."

Nowhere in recent American history is it more apparent that women have paid a precious price for audaciously rejecting societal norms than in the Beat movement. It was devastatingly difficult during that time for a radically-minded woman to partake in, as her kindred male counterparts did, a bohemian lifestyle. Indeed, according to one of the female writers of the Beat movement, Diane DiPrima, "Potentially great women writers wound up dead or crazy." In fact, women who were biased toward bohemian ways often underwent electroshock at the urging of their parents, because surely such proclivities were an abominable aberration for women.

The fact is, of course, that women are as autonomously and intellectually inclined as men. But I don't need to tell you that, savvy savorer of pop and literary culture.

But truly, I had NO idea that women played such a prominent role in the seemingly male-dominated Beat movement. And I have the book, "Women of the Beat Generation" to thank for alerting me to this gravely under-studied and undervalued topic and for igniting my interest in the subject.

I have long revered male Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and, most especially, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. More recently, I have taken a liking to Phillip Lamantia, Gregory Corso and Bob Kaufman. Less appreciated by me have been Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. Frankly, I was bored by On the Road and Dharma Bums, and Burroughs might just be a bit off-kilter for me stylistically, as much as I do embrace flamboyant forms of writing.

The book is serves its purpose well as an introduction to the female muses, writers, and artists of the Beat Generation, those outrageously gifted women who boldly blasted through the barriers of an oppressively sexist, even misogynistic, society . I am now acquainted with names I never knew, such as Joanna McClure, Janine Pommy Vega, Josephine Miles, and Joyce Johnson, and much more familiar with names I had heard of, such as Denise Levertov, Hettie Jones, ruth weiss, and Jane Bowles. The book succeeds brilliantly in profiling these women's (colorful and often chaotic) lives and exploring the intriguing idiosyncrasies of their talent.

Where the book fails, in my view, is in not proffering more fascinating examples of the writers' compositions. Sure, there are some great writings collected therein, but then there are some truly lackluster ones, while better ones are alluded to. For example, why include diary entries or letters in lieu of poetry or fiction? If those are there to supplement the poems and stories, great, but sometimes they are there to take the place of it, which is bemusing, considering that the writers indulged in one or both of those genres.

The book, of course, is not a scholarly study of the women of the Beat generation, and that's fine; not all books of this sort need be academic. But if we are to fully grasp the salient contributions of these brave and vibrant writers, we need concrete manifestation of their gifts. Waxing nostalgically about their lives and talents is all fine and well, but the proof is in the pudding; the works should be allowed speak for themselves. In some cases, they do, but in other more frequent cases, I am left wanting much more. Perhaps the book was intended to provide mere tantalizing tastes of the writers' gifts rather than feature seminal works, but it still falls short of expectations, considering the import of the topic. And there is practically NO artwork showcased in the artists section, a bizarre omission indeed.

Nevertheless, that any women were able to inhabit the frantic fringes of society during this era (and even before) and actually create meaningful art in the face of a rigidly resistant populace is staggering, and I am indebted to the book for its illuminating insights into this facet of American culture.

And in fact, the book reminds me that I have not sufficiently appreciated the sacrifices of previous generations of women. The women of the Beat generation may not have been consciously rebelling so that women like me could be more artistically and physically "liberated" within the confines of conventional society, but their brazen behavior ("brazen" in the context of the times, anyway) have catalyzed female freedom nonetheless. Of course, such sacrifices do eventually lead to the normalization of this behavior, so that taking my freedom for granted becomes an expected response. This is an unspoken, paradoxical goal of any brand of rebellion.

So I not only have the women of the beat generation to thank for brashly forging ahead despite sometimes crushing obstacles, enabling me to savor the fruits of their struggle, but also for sharing their bountiful and inspiring intellectual gifts.

Here is my favorite poem featured in the book:

"Rant" by Diane DiPrima

You cannot write a single line w/out a cosmology
a cosmogony
laid out, before all eyes

there is no part of yourself you can separate out
saying, this is memory, this is sensation
this is the work I care about, this is how I***
make a living

it is whole, it is a whole, it always was whole
you do not "make" it so
there is nothing to integrate, you are a presence
you are an appendage of the work, the work stems from***
hangs from the heaven you create

every man / every woman carries a firmament inside
& the stars in it are not the stars in the sky

w/out imagination there is no memory
w/out imagination there is no sensation
w/out imagination there is no will, desire

history is a living weapon in yr hand
& you have imagined it, it is thus that you
"find out for yourself"
history is the dream of what can be, it is
the relation between things in a continuum

of imagination
what you find out for yourself is what you select
out of an infinite sea of possibility
no one can inhabit yr world

yet it is not lonely,
the ground of imagination is fearlessness
discourse is video tape of a movie of a shadow play
but the puppets are in yr hand
your counters in a multidimensional chess
which is divination
& strategy

the war that matters is the war against the imagination
all other wars are subsumed in it.

the ultimate famine is the starvation
of the imagination

it is death to be sure, but the undead
seek to inhabit someone else's world

the ultimate claustrophobia is the syllogism
the ultimate claustrophobia is "it all adds up"
nothing adds up & nothing stands in for***
anything else


There is no way out of a spiritual battle
There is no way you can avoid taking sides
There is no way you can not have a poetics
no matter what you do: plumber, baker, teacher

you do it in the consciousness of making
or not making yr world
you have a poetics: you step into the world
like a suit of readymade clothes

or you etch in light
your firmament spills into the shape of your room
the shape of the poem, of yr body, of yr loves

A woman's life / a man's life is an allegory

Dig it

There is no way out of the spiritual battle
the war is the war against the imagination
you can't sign up as a conscientious objector

the war of the worlds hangs here, right now, in the balance
it is a war for this world, to keep it
a vale of soul-making

the taste in all our mouths is the taste of power
and it is bitter as death

bring yr self home to yrself, enter the garden
the guy at the gate w/ the flaming sword is yrself

the war is the war for the human imagination
and no one can fight it but you/ & no one can fight it for you

The imagination is not only holy, it is precise
it is not only fierce, it is practical
men die everyday for the lack of it,
it is vast & elegant

intellectus means "light of the mind"
it is not discourse it is not even language
the inner sun

the polis is constellated around the sun
the fire is central

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