Winter 2010

Beats at Naropa

(ed. Anne Waldman, Laura Wright; Coffee House Press, 2009)

Marc Olmsted

The cover photo says it all.  It’s 1975.  There’s Allen Ginsberg with Bell’s Palsy after an allergic reaction to antibiotics – half his face is slack and his hair and beard untrimmed – no tie yet.  He looks pretty kooky to say the least– hands on knees in formal meditation pose.  Gregory Corso has his arms looped around both Allen and William Burroughs.  He looks like a kid who’s just kicked the other team’s ass.  Burroughs is somber, yet somehow more in relaxed meditation pose than Allen.  Anne Waldman, dressed down, is still ’70s post-hippie chic—boots, shawl, a long dress.

It is an astounding time at Naropa Institute (later University).  Just one of these faculty at a conventional college would have been a coup.  But at Naropa, these were just the core from at least 1975 through the early 80s. 

Diane di Prima, Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan, Merce Cunningham, Stan Brakhage – to say nothing of ahead-of-his-time-and-culture lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, whose English was better than most Americans, brought together a scene unparalleled.

Cliff Fyman, Will Voight, Peter Marti, Vincent Zangrillo, Ron Rodriguez, Steve Silberman, Jim Cohn , Andy Clausen, Eliot Katz and Mark Fisher were some of the young writers I’ve met from those days.  Most remain great friends and continue to write beautifully.  They are just some of the PostBeats, as unsung as this period itself.

The choice of the name Naropa is extremely interesting in itself.  Naropa was a major teacher of the Karma Kagyu (“Tibetan” i.e Vajrayana) Buddhist lineage, though not its founder, nor its most famous creative force, poet-saint Milarepa. 

Naropa ironically began as a very learned scholar, a university professor of sorts, whose life is turned completely upside down by a mocking hag, known forever more as the Hag of Naropa.  This bag lady of her day totally nailed Naropa’s completely academic and thoroughly unrealized Buddhist take.  Bag ladies are still doing that.  It so unnerved Naropa that he dropped out and went looking for a real teacher. 

It is not surprising that the teacher Naropa found, Tilopa, was considered a crazy derelict by the locals.  When Tilopa transmitted his wisdom completely, Naropa was also a crazy wisdom derelict.  There are probably a few of those still around on our streets as well. 

Many of the transcribed lectures included in this volume are terrific enough to comment on in detail.

The First Reading of the Environmental Movement: The Six Gallery Reading (Michael McClure)
McClure’s remarks on the Six Gallery reading (where, most famously, “Howl” was first read in 1955 San Francisco and Kerouac shouted “go” from the audience) are truly great, though McClure himself was hardly a regular at Naropa, and this lecture was given in 1999.

Women and the Beats (Hettie Jones, Joanne Kyger, Janine Pommy Vega, Anne Waldman)
This is a succinct presentation of the unsung women of the Beat generation – a relatively new but (now) rapidly well-documented territory.  This symposium is a good place to begin if the reader is unfamiliar with these women.  It goes towards correcting the wincing treatment of women as reported by the accurately criticized patriarchy of the Beat movement, to say nothing of some of its outright misogyny.

Kerouac, Catholicism, Buddhism (Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, John Clellon Holmes)
Allen Ginsberg acknowledges here first time from examination of Jack’s letters that Kerouac actually knew how to do classical Buddhist meditation—mindfulness of breath, which Ginsberg had forgotten about.  Jack was later more vocal about a rather leftfield technique (self-taught and partially self-invented) that seemed to have some origin in yogic breathing—and his practice of it (& Buddhism) seemed somewhat confused – but obviously he knew better than was previously thought.

You Can't Win: (An Interview with William Burroughs by John Oughton and Anne Waldman);
An amusing conversation whose title may qualify as one of Burroughs’ greatest mind-training slogans.

"Frightened Chrysanthemums": Poets' Colloquium (William Burroughs, Rick Fields Allen Ginsberg, W. S. Merwin, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Anne Waldman, Philip Whalen, David Rome, Joshua Zim) 

This transcribed discussion was already a particular favorite of mine, previously published in the majorly obscure Loka II.  It is dominated by Trungpa Rinpoche and Burroughs, and they traded remarks are classic, Trungpa often giving only single sentence pithy answers to Burroughs’ musings on Aleister Crowley and scientology techniques that Burroughs had learned.  It is also the precursor of what became Burroughs’ The Retreat Diaries, where we hear Trungpa’s reasoning behind telling Burroughs to leave his typewriter at home.

There are also a collection of Sidebars, short wake-up statements that include Allen Ginsberg onWilliam Blake” and “Abbie Hoffman: Warrior in the World.”  Also, “Tendrel” (Anne Waldman), where Anne uses the Tibetan term for “auspicious connection” in discussing the far-more-than casual influence of Buddhism on most of the Beat core—a fact as yet virtually unrecognized.  Bless her heart, she also says Jack Kerouac learned Buddhism from Gary Snyder (though Kerouac’s letters referencing it predate their meeting, mentioned elsewhere in this very volume) and she refers to the 16th Dalia Lama (he is the 14th).

Pulling it down or the Good Manners of Vampires (Amiri Baraka)
Amiri Barka (formerly Leroi Jones) essentially created the style of rap that deeply influenced The Last Poets and Gil-Scott Heron, later becoming the foundation of hip hop itself. 

Here he tells how to continue to fight the power (personified by the publishing combine).  I wanted to know more about his phrase, "Good Manners of Vampires," and one of our November 3rd editors posed my question to Amiri directly at his November 11th reading at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California, 2009:

“Comrade Baraka told me that ‘…the good manners of vampires is the hand kissing how lovely you look my dear Count Dracula shot, in other words, baby you've been marked and he's coming for YOUR blood next. The three-piece suit capitalist blood suckers, hail fellow well met, Chamber of Commerce glad hander, polite, courteous with fangs protruding. You dig man?’”

Commonplace Discoveries: Lew Welch (Philip Whalen)
Whalen elucidates a poem by Lew Welch with both the penetrating insight and relaxed goofiness that infuses his own best work.

An Interview with Edward Sanders (Junior Burke)
A particularly recent interview with Sanders not only talks about his journalism as it relates to his self-invented “investigative poetics,” but also goes into his work-in-progress history in verse “America” (a fascinating and impressive undertaking in itself).  Plus the origin story of his ‘60s band The Fugs!

Basic Definitions (Gary Snyder)
Gary Snyder’s anthropological examination of what literature “is” drones didactic and rather drearily, especially when the flashes of brilliance he shows in tantalizing single sentences about the sacred, mantric elements of Pound’s Cantos and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake flash by all too quickly.  Snyder, however, was majorly missing in action from most of Naropa’s years, due to the offence he took to Trungpa’s drunken crazy wisdom antics interrupting Snyder’s benefit poetry reading (at Ginsberg’s invitation) for Trungpa’s own organization  in 1972.  I was not even aware that Snyder had visited Naropa while Trungpa was alive, but this 1983 lecture says otherwise.

By any Means Necessary (Diane di Prima)
Diane di Prima’s account of her early days of self-publishing are of historical interest to be sure, but one wonders what students thought of this extensive detail concerning printing methods long extinct (many never have even seeing a mimeographed page, let alone the mimeo machine itself).  Gone also are the days when one could get by on part-time work and cheap rent in any major city of America.  Rather than inspiring student poets to rise up and take their own artistic destiny into their hands, these youngsters may only be able to summon wistfulness for bygone, simpler times.  It is hard to understand on the editors’ parts why this was chosen as a crown jewel of di Prima’s extensive teaching at Naropa.

Bob Kaufman: Beat, Surreal, Buddhist, and Black (David Henderson)
Perhaps the most controversial and contrary piece of the book, David Henderson clearly understands the value of neglected poet Bob Kaufman.  He also strangely singles out Allen Ginsberg as being some sort of obstacle to Kaufman’s place in the Beat canon.  Though not quite overt, it is hinted strongly that racism had a place in this perceived antipathy, though Henderson has to scramble to explain Ginsberg’s friendship with Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) as being contingent on Jones’ own perceived racial self-loathing.  I saw Ginsberg behave with extreme kindness to Kaufman at least by 1974, and maintaining Kaufman’s archive would be a fulltime job for anyone who followed his burned-out street persona.  It is difficult to imagine why this seemed to be Ginsberg’s job.  What’s more, however great Kaufman was a poet, his references to Zen Buddhism were more surrealist/dada than related to any actual sense of Buddhist practice or outlook.  Henderson also seems to think that Kaufman maintained his vow of silence except to expound poetry.  Since Kaufman spoke to me directly, this calls a great deal of Henderson’s suppositions into question.

All in all, this is a wonderful slim collection of some of the history that was Naropa Beat.  It will be remembered as an astonishing time that remains without precedent in American letters.  Kudos to editors Anne Waldman and Laura Wright for letting us taste a time that was gone faster than any of us wished.