This text, updated in 2013, was published in Action Poétique n° 200, June 2010, having first appeared in a shorter form in Le Journal des Poètes n°2, 2004.
WOMEN OF THE BEAT GENERATION AND POETRY
Elise Cowen, Diane di Prima, Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Lenore Kandel, Eileen Kaufman, Joanne Kyger, Joanna McClure, Nancy Peters, Janine Pommy Vega, Anne Waldman, Helen Weaver, ruth weiss and the others.
“The literary importance of the Beat movement is perhaps not as evident as its sociological importance”, said Burroughs. Could the same be said of the women who also qualify as Beat for having shared its same philosophy, for living and writing more or less silently depending on the case alongside the male writers, even outliving them? At the time, the men were in the limelight, speaking out loud and clear in their own voice. Yet the women were many to write, poems especially, but also novels (Joyce Johnson), children’s stories (Hettie Jones) and several autobiographical works: Diane di Prima wrote her famous, scandalous at the time, Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969) followed by Recollections of My Life as a Woman (1990); Janine Pommy Vega; Joyce Johnson wrote Minor Characters (1983); Hettie Jones, the tale of her marriage to LeRoi Jones and memories of beat life in the 50s and 60s, How I Became Hettie Jones (1990); Carolyn Cassady, the lucid, highly detailed evolution of her relationship with Neal Cassady and her friendships with Kerouac and Ginsberg., Off the Road (1990); Helen Weaver, The Awakener, A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties (2009); Joyce Johnson The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac (2012). These narratives and studies were highly acclaimed.
Men of the Beat Generation, writers of poetry and prose, belonged mostly to the 50s and 60s, even though their influence was still strong in the 70s. In the 50s, the existence of areal misogyny, though the term needs toning down, would be hard to deny. “We had to give them everything”, recalls Carolyn Cassady. Yet when, in Los Gatos, she met up with Neal Cassady, Kerouac (who liked the hideaway) and Ginsberg, she did not feel excluded. On the contrary, she took full part in the conversations, her opinion was sought and the spirit of friendship and camaraderie embraced her as much as them. This could not prevent Kerouac from invariably going up to work on his own “in the attic”, in the room reserved for him… Preoccupying topics were country, identity, self-change, multiple relationships, and the creation of their work. Home was a concept, an utopia, to be constructed in a figurative sense at first and then more concretely as they got a little older, if they did. Men turned to their female partners more for a temporary place to stay. Union or marriage usually ended in separation or divorce. They often returned though, particularly Kerouac, for whom the only real yokes remained, wherever they were, home and mother comfort. He even obstinately refused to recognize Jan, the daughter he had with Joan Haverty, his second wife, in 1951, and she was the spitting image of him…
The story of Hettie Jones’ marriage to LeRoi Jones who became Amiri Baraka in 1965 just when, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, de-segregation was veering towards separation, is also indicative. LeRoi Jones could not be accused of not loving his kids, but he couldn’t sit still. Between rounds of bars, listening to jazz, poetry readings, teaching, multiple friendships and writing, he eventually showed little interest in running the household, particularly when it came to bringing In money. Hettie Jones liked being “at home”, realizing rapidly that she absolutely had to have her own desk and work space. What’s more, LeRoi Jones also loved her, even especially as a creative artist. Her silence and lack of confidence in her own writing weighed heavily on both of them. “I love you and you hide from me / in the shade” he wrote.
After seven years of a relationship nonetheless beautiful, warm, creative – and intense, LeRoi Jones was really only to find himself as Amiri Baraka, in Newark, his hometown. Though deep down, Hettie Jones knew that she too would manage, in her own time, to speak in a tone reminiscent of Billie Holliday, with words as movingly melodic as Miles Davis, and that her poetry could be on a par with William Carlos Williams or e.e. cummings.
Women of the Beat Generation knew, loved, admired and helped each other. Getting on well together was not confined to preparing salads in the kitchen while homologues drank beer in another room or raved to music to all hours of the night. Joyce Glassman and Elise Cowen were best friends. Joyce was also very close to Hettie Jones. When Hettie’s first daughter was born, Joyce and the Black Mountain poets took Hettie to the hospital. Hettie Jones admired Diane di Prima for her independence, for the way she tenaciously built her work, and Diane di Prima liked Hettie for her freedom of spirit, even if tings were not always that simple. None of them expected a man to provide for necessities of any kind. None of them had waited for marriage to have a sex life. And it hadn’t turned them into monsters.
Diane di Prima had five children, from different fathers, Joyce Johnson had a son from a late union, as did Anne Waldman. For many of them it was no easy task to bring into this life of woe, as Kerouac so strongly saw it, a new human being destined also to suffer. In Minor Characters, Joyce Johnson clearly evokes this choice, citing Ginsberg: “Me, reproduce? Never. The test of existence is a total failure.” Things did however turn out otherwise for both Joyce Johnson whose son became a friend, and for loving Hettie Jones whose proudly self-affirmative daughters gave her grat cause for joy, ruth weiss and Janine Pommy Vega had no children, nor did Helen Weaver who never regretted not having had one.
Kerouac, Ginsberg and Corso found refuge, whenever they needed to, wherever friendly hospitality allowed them to make a stop. Kerouac lived for a time with Helen Weaver in New York, and on several occasions with Joyce Johson (Joyce Glassman at the time, whom he affectionately called Joycee) whose door was always wide open, posing his backpack on arrival, unrolling his sleeping bag, borrowing the typewriter, barricading himself to work, while the women went on living ‘normal’ lives, ones that paid the bills: the act of feminism, perhaps the most important, after leaving home. Michael McClure likewise moved in with Joanna in San Francisco. Thsese women of the Beat Generation maintained or tried to maintain certain flexibility in their couple or family. Faithful to their convictions, to their religious beliefs or the absence of these, they continued to experiment with their own lives. They also advanced –though more slowly- with their writing. Joyce Johnson, after an early decision to write, had begun a novel that was accepted by Random House before its completion. Kerouac believed in Joyce as a writer and liked the poem she wrote after Elise Cowen left for San Francisco, but Joyce could not write whenever he was there. She was very young. At the age of twenty she preferred his intermittent presence to writing… a situation that could not, and did not, endure.
Besides writing, their professional lives led many of them into collaborations with magazines and editing houses. Hettie Jones first worked for a jazz magazine called The Record Changer (thanks to which she met LeRoi Jones) and Time Magazine. She co-created the magazine Yugen and the collection Totem Press. She also corrected the proofs of The Wretched ot the Earth for Grove Press. Joyce Johnson moved straight into the editing world. She first worked alternately for two literary agents, then for Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, William Morrow and Dial Press… It was thanks to her that Visions of Cody was published in 1972. Helen Weaver worked for paradigm Books and for Farrar, Straus & Cudahy. For this editor, in 1976 and 1977 she collaborated with Susan Sontag on a translation of Artaud and translated herself many other works from French to English. Nancy Peters, ex-girlfriend of surrealist poet Philip Lamantia, was for many years the collaborator of Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights.
Women of the Beat Generation were extraordinary personalities with incredible drive. Sensitive, compassionate, tormented, inspired, intelligent and of an independent character, they were avid of encounter, liaison and exchange. The 50s and 60s were years of mutual curiosity and dialogue, very different from today’s epoch when it is stupefying to see the degree to which self-interst dominates our thinking. Curiosity in others now seems a thing of the past. Are we contesting enough the lack of communication between us, even as the means at our disposal multiply and superimpose like a mille-feuilles? Fear of contact has been reinstated. The face to face is wearing thin. We are in a sadder, more worried time. Even as the exterior form of couples is in a process of evolution, we are beginning to see a significant regression. The period is less immediately generous too. Emotion is triggered more by images seen on television than by the readable signs of such and such a face. Almost everything has to be passed through the inescapable sieve, the ‘blender’ for want of a better word, of the internet. And language opts almost exclusively, as Claude Pélieu and Burroughs had predicted, for brief, expeditious, truncated turns of phrase.
Many of these women were the inspiration for the”new sensibility”, the “new vision”, that led Beat writers through experimentation,, aborted attempts and occasional excesses into a reclaiming of personal freedom that finally rocked American youth. Both in and around herself, Hettie Jones felt the swelling of a tremendous undercurrent, ready to break and flow into collective consciousness. Ginsberg and Burroughs well knew how indebted they were to Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs for her intelligence and her bold choices. When Ginsberg wrote “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”, he was talking essentially about his male friends, speaking moreover directly to them – and to himself: Holy Peter holy Allen holy Salomon holy Lucien holy Kerouac holy Huncke holy Burroughs holy Cassady”…Elise Cowen however, of whom eighty-three poems remain thanks to her friend Leo Skir (her mother and father destroyed the rest) also went to Bellevue Hospital, before throwing herself, in 1962, at the age of 29, from, as Joyce Johnson put it, the autumnal drawing-room window of her parents.
After studying at Barnard, a select college from where graduated neither she nor her friend Joyce, Elise Cowen lived with Alex Greer, her philosophy professor. An experimenter with anything promoting higher consciousness, a great liberator of his students whom he would invariably advise to leave their families, Greer lived a Beat life, door wide open, his couple also open, not to say broken. More especially, Cowen was to have a liaison with Allen Ginsberg. For him, already involved with his life-long lover Peter Orlovsky, the relationship was just a friendship. She never ceased thinking of him, kept waiting for him, forever engulfed by her feelings despite subsequent liaisons, some with women. Cowen was one of the first in New York to have a copy of Howl. She also prepared the manuscript of Kaddish. Unassuming, yet forever tormented by her choice not to speak out, she bizarrely considered Ginsberg as her “intercessor”. She also experimented with everything, losing her health in the process, attaining each time the hapless limits of no return.
Women of the Beat Generation came from different origins though not, like the male Beat writers, particularly fromminority and/or very poor backgrounds. They were not orphans, not children of parents who had been orphans, like most of the men. They came mostly from conventional, more or less well-off families who believed that a daughter, often the only child, should get a good education. Most of them studied at the best colleges and universities. Nearly all had degrees. Hettie Jones, accepted at Vassar, chose to go south, as far away from the parental cocoon as possible. In Virginia, she discovered, Country, Blues, the Appalachians, skin colour…considering herself as a mutant. Later she studied at Columbia. Helen Weaver graduated from Oberlin. Avid readers, for these women the personal acquisition of knowledge and intuitive intelligence were priorities. Joyce Johnson, Janine Pommy Vega and ruth weiss eventually chose partners who were painters and artists, rejecting hard-line intellectualism.
In the 1950s, they belonged to the so-called Silent Generation and to a world where women who spoke up held no sway, especially when they were virulent. They could never resign themselves to this reality, even though they needed time to shake it off. Unbearable to them was the conventional spirit of America in those years, its respectability, conformity, clean conscience, and materialism. They were supposed to become mothers, of higher than average intelligence of course, but remain spectators, readers and listeners. One notable exception however: Joyce Johnson’s mother had ambitions for her daughter to become a composer, despite Joyce having neither the vocation nor the desire. Her piano teacher finally convinced her to give up, once and for all.
Leaving home without getting married was inconceivable. Everyone knew, they especially, that any other choice would imply promiscuous sexuality, maybe even experimentation with drugs. This was why they chose to do precisely that. They were looking for avenues not traced out in advance, a life chosen by and for themselves, more real, more dramatic, less safe and for this reason of much greater worth in their own eyes. To the stupefaction and despair of their families, by 1956 they had all heard Howl, the cry of Ginsberg, and were feeling attracted to the two poles of Greenwich Village, New York, and North Beach, California, and to Mexico, Europe and, later, as much spiritually as geographically, to the Orient. Though Kerouac’s first book The Town and the City at Harcourt Brace had passed them by hardly noticed in 1950, it was a different story in 1957 for On the Road. Joyce Johnson was a principal witness in that case that rallied an entire generation, even if Kerouac received literary recognition stricto sensu much later. They had heard the call of the road, a desire for elsewhere was also resounding in them.
By fleeing their families and what was expected of them, an obedience to tradition, an ancestral mind-set, they were abandoning with no regrets a life-style unsuited to them, going towards encounters, friendships, loves…but they did not expect to be on their own. According to Gregory Corso, though the Beat circle was not welcoming to their work, it was a refuge from tradition. At first spectators and observers in the wings, they attended public readings rather than participated in them. Many of them began precariously, most often misunderstood, even rejected by parents for whom it had been a source of pride to escape the misery and destitution of those very quarters their daughters had chosen as base. Memories oh the Great Depression were still too vivid. Parents could not understand preferring unfurnished lodgings at the tip of New York, to the bourgeois apartments and housing estates of Manhattan or its suburbs, could not understand deliberate choices to live in a biracial environment.
Alone or practically alone, they had to earn a living in order to pay the rent, the bills, and bring up their children. Hettie Jones had to admit that occasionally, when her daughters were still little, it was only the kindness and solidarity of her racially diverse neighbours that stopped her from despairing, along with solid support from the family of LeRoi Jones. They had chosen this life-style, not depending, not counting on anyone. The first time Joyce Johnson took Kerouac out for a coffee, she was proud to feel so mature and responsible. They had chosen not to be afraid, of anything. One should not forget that the 1950s, immediately after the World War II, saw the beginnings of the Cold War and McCarthyism. Most Americans lived with innumerable fears, fear of lacking, of hierarchy, of what others would think, of the family context, of sexual impotence, of instability of any form. Women of the Beat Generation considered that life in those conditions was more a slow death. With their faith in the future and conviction of belonging to a great movement transforming collective consciousness, they saw themselves as the members of a boundless family.
Some of them took part in the Backpack Revolution… Diane di Prima travelled with children, Zen and poetry from one end of America to the other in her Volkswagen bus. Anne Waldman, the youngest, lived between New York and San Francisco, before going to Greece, Egypt, Asia and Nepal in particular. Janine Pommy Vega lived throughout North and South America, all over Europe and the Middle East. They headed for the same destinations as the Beat writers but mostly alone, with a few exceptions: Joanne Kyger went to Japan with Snyder. Otherwise their travelling companions were not Beat writers. Helen Weaver lived for a while in Italy and Greece before coming back, with her cat, completely exhausted, to take refuge at her parents who always offered help when she needed it (as did for short periods other parents of Beat women when their daughters were physically exhausted). Even Carolyn Cassady, after desperately pursuing the dream of a ‘normal’ family life with Neal, finally left for England at the age of sixty to settle there until her death.
In the 50s and 60s, they remained more in the background, working hard, the more lucid not hesitating to revert to analysis in order to understand themselves better, locating and defusing tensions in order to progress. Ginsberg also used analysis but Kerouac refused it from a fear, said he, of any interference with, even hindrance to his work as a writer, a hot debate at the time. In all cases, they were writing later than the men, being mostly ten to fifteen years younger, born between 1922 (Eileen Kaufman) and 1945 (Anne Waldman). Joyce Johnson made her literary debut in 1962 with Come and Join the Dance. She was twenty-six. When Minor Characters appeared in 1983, it was chosen for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Back in 1967, Anne Waldman received the Dylan Thomas Literary Award and in 1968, Hettie Jones was thirty-four when she published her first anthology Poems Now. The books of most of these women can now be counted by the dozens, works of prose and poetry that won many awards and were translated into many languages.
Moreover, they played, as they still do, a major role in the heritage of the Beat Generation. Many are or have been historians an/or archivists of the movement. Eileen Kaufman took everywhere the poems of Bob Kaufman, his letters and photos…Some hold (or held until recently) teaching posts: Diane di Prima in San Francisco, Oriental spiritual traditions, Hettie Jones in New York, creative writing classes for diverse underprivileged groups, Janine Pommy Vega English and Spanish at several universities and also classes for the underprivileged, Joyce Johnson at Columbia, New York University and the University of Vermont. In 1974, Anne Waldman founded with Allen Ginsberg, who considered her his “spiritual wife”, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute ofvthe University of Boulder, Colorado.
Ferlinghetti played a particularly important role by publishing Beat Generation women at City Lights. Poems to Fernando by Janine Pommy Vega in 1968, the Revolutionary Letters of Diane di Prima in 1971, Fast Speaking Woman by Anne Waldman in 1975, and in editing Helen Weaver for The Awakener in 2009. They were also encouraged by the active friendship of Philip Whalen and the Black Mountain poets, Charles Olson, Michael McClure, Robert Duncan, David Meltzer and Lew Welch. Kenneth Rexroth showed his sympathy and appreciation for Diane di Prima. They also privileged intuitive thinking, immediate perception and the practice of Zen. They focused less on what was ‘good or not’ than on the essential nature of self-expression. Beat women felt close to these poets who were attentive to what they were doing. The experimental college Black Mountain, created in North Carolina in 1933, had been obliged through lack of funds to stop its activities, publishing its last review in 1957. After this date, most of its poets headed to San Francisco and New York, where they could hear in the bars and cafés artists like Miles Davis, Armstrong, Coltrane, Monk, Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday and others, also meeting Beat writers when they were in town. Hettie Jones noted that whenever she would meet Ornette Coleman in the street, he would throw her a redemptive “Hey, man!”…
From the 90s, renewed interest in Beat Generation poets redoubled interest in the women who had been their companions and friends. Several significant events were organized: in 1994, New York University organized a symposium entitled The Beat Generation: Legacy and Celebration, co-presided by Allen Ginsberg and Ann Charters, an author of several reference works on the movement who had been present at the first reading of Howl in San Francisco. This conference was attended by many ‘specialists’ from all over America, Canada, England, Belgium and Spain. In 1996 they reunited in San Francisco for The Beat Chicks and again in New York for the Beatfest 2002: Beat Chicks Live.
Since the 50s and the 60s, they had become more self-confident and finally made their literary mark in prose and poetry. They had become leading actors in the Beat Generation. In their literature, poetry more particularly, they had many common traits, influences and inspiration. Jazz was capital to Hettie Jones and, undeniably, to ruth weiss. Buddhism, for Diane di Prima, Joanne Kyger, Lenore Kandel and Anne Waldman, encouraged an open mind, deepening consciousness, curiosity and a love for wisdom, beauty and the concrete, while it also rejected a materialist attitude. Their poems were the expression of this. In a single breath, the words came spontaneously without too much preparation, harmonizing reality to immediate perception. There was one domain where they participated in the only revolution on the march at that time, a phrase coined by Bruce Cook: Beat writing brought private life into public language. This was particularly true of their writing. They wrote without complexes, in a quite spontaneous way, and no subject was taboo. One example suffices: when Lenore Kandel and City Lights were taken to court for The Love Book in 1996, the result was immediate celebrity…
In their more recent poems, they talk with simplicity, in everyday language, about every aspect of their lives. The intimacy of private life continues to be an unfailing source of inspiration and, though they sometimes look with melancholy on years gone by, the present keeps them totally focused. Their commitment to women’s rights, to prison rights, to abortion reform, to challenging any form of individual or State violence and fighting for freedom of speech, a battle never completely won, has never tired. Though Carolyn Cassady refuses the term of feminist, Diane di Prima, Hettie Jones, Janine Pommy Vega and Anne Waldman have always clearly advocated it. Joyce Johnson and ruth weiss make explicit reference to Virginia Woolf. The protestations and poetry of Anne Waldman, Hettie Jones and ruth weiss leave no doubt. Their commitment is and has always been the same aq that of the male Beat writers; the social and anti-war issues rather than strictly political ones.
Beat writers seem to be a thing of the past, and yet… Do we not continually return to them, rediscovering them, enthusiastically seeing Ginsberg as the 20th century heir of Blake and Whitman? Did we not celebrate the fifty years of Naked Lunch? Women of the Beat Generation clearly belong to the contemporary world where they have become women of influence. Despite the fact that Lenore Kandel passed away in 2009, Janine Pommy Vega in 2012, Carolyn Cassady in 2013, and that age has brought myriad troubles to Diane di Prima and Eileen Kaufman of whom we have nonews, Hettie Jones, Joyce Johnson, Anne Waldman and ruth weiss, to cite only them, are still writing, publishing, teaching, participating in symposiums and conferences, and actively defending the issues of today. With nearly all successful in their life and work, one would even say they have the grace to be as happy and free as one can ever be.