Book Review

Fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists: Sex and Drugs in Beat Poetry

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The Beats were not the first generation of poets to experiment with sex or drugs, but they appear the first to treat this as normative. For Ginsberg and his circle, sexuality and intoxication appeared staples of existence, and the ‘mystique’ of sex and drugs existed not in any intrigue attached to them, but in an acceptance of enjoying the experience. John Clellon Holmes, defining the Beat Generation in 1952, stated that their ‘excursions into drugs or promiscuity came out of curiosity, not disillusionment’[1], and throughout their literary output this appears the case. These classically ‘subversive’ elements existed not to make a point, but narcotics and sex were prominent due to a direct lust for experience. The driving factor in the acts these writers took part in was a want to feel more by living more.

A poem which illustrates the implication of sex as existence is Ginsberg’s eulogy of Neal Cassady, ‘On Neal’s Ashes’ (1971). Lamenting the death of a close friend and former lover, Ginsberg lists parts of Neal’s body which no longer exist, focusing upon those which are easily sexualised: ‘mouth my tongue touched once or twice all ash […] youthful cock tip, curly pubis’[2]. Perhaps appearing necrophilic in its erotic exploration of the dead, Ginsberg evokes a strong feeling of grief by allowing a reader to understand a sexualised bond between him and his dead friend. Cassady is an archetypal Beat figure, ‘secret hero of these poems’[3]: with a criminal past, promiscuous and drug using present and literary aspirations, his death would understandably have upset his associates. Ginsberg’s eulogy encourages its reader to perceive Neal as gone – by evoking his genitals and his mouth, eroticising a body which has become ash, the intimacy of the description emphasises the subject as lost. The poem seems to imply that sex is the ultimate act of living, a sign of life and passion. Neal, being dead, can no longer feel – but he can also no longer be felt, physically, and all that remains is dust and memory.

Ginsberg was wary of accepting his sexuality, and it is not until after he had that he began to write the poems which are considered his best. Campbell attributes this change to a discussion with a doctor in 1955, who encouraged Ginsberg to do what he would ‘like to do’[4]. And this seems to be a significant point in his poetry and his life. The Beat Generation lived and wrote how they wanted to – this is the reason for the honesty within their works, for they were attempting to live with honesty towards themselves. The poetry Ginsberg wrote exploring his life and society possessed an open acceptance of sex and drugs – because they were an unavoidable element of both. In Kaddish (1957-9) he mentions his discovery of ‘a mortal avalanche, whole mountains of homosexuality, Matterhorns of cock, Grand Canyons of asshole – weight on my melancholy head–’[5] Here the difficulties of his search for self-knowledge are expressed – his homosexuality appears a huge, global, trauma – something which has to be comprehended before he can understand the world – geographic and unavoidable. And, in many ways, this is how sex in his poetry is elsewhere addressed – it is not secret, it is omnipresent, because it is omnipresent in life. Self-knowledge is essential in expressing the self, as Ginsberg was trying to do. Walt Whitman, one of his key influences, went so far as to lament ‘howls restrained by decorum’[6]. And Ginsberg’s seminal work was the opposite of this – a Howl which accepted life without decorum, accepted homosexuality, drug use, depression and fear. This poem was about the search for and depiction of an identity, and it appears to succeed in both.

Howl (1955-6) displays a frank and involved attitude towards sex. This is probably best illustrated by the line, ‘who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy’ (p. 4). One of the passages ‘moral detractors’ focused upon, this line evokes an enjoyable, ‘non-normative’ sexual experience. The use of the word ‘let’ implies some level of condescension, of passivity, which is countered by the ‘screamed’ joy. This is involved sodomy, not passive heterosexual sex. The implication of violence invoked by ‘motorcyclists’ – the ‘Hell’s Angels’ being a dangerous gang then as now – countered by ‘saintly’ (and ‘screamed’ perhaps implying pain or fear but instead dramatising ‘joy’) invokes a powerful invocation of Ginsberg’s circle. Sex is here and throughout Howl a means of escape as well as of existence – nothing to do with reproduction, but everything to do with experience. The poem also mentions failed suicides, and how their practitioners ‘thought they were growing old and cried’ (p. 5). Life, it appears in the lines surrounding this action, is long and arduous and its continuance is depressing. Sex and drugs, Ginsberg seems to almost state directly, are the most beautiful distractions.

Ginsberg was highly vocal, in and out of poetry, about drug use and legislation. In ‘America’ (1956) he proudly proclaims, ‘I smoke marijuana every chance I get’[7], and in essays claims the drug is widespread and smoked by ‘millions’[8]. Ginsberg sees chemical exploration as an expected and natural human activity, as something people should have the right to do. However, the vehemence he occasionally uses in his arguments could imply that his opinions on drugs serve the purpose of giving him something to argue for. In his essay ‘The Great Marijuana Hoax’(1965-6), he very one-sidedly extols the benefits and enjoyment he has taken from marijuana, working through arguments against its legalisation invoking medicine, psychiatry and artistic enjoyment. He states, ‘I apprehended the structure of certain pieces of jazz and classical music in a new manner under the influence of marijuana, and these apprehensions have remained valid in years of normal consciousness.’[9] This paragraph continues, also discussing visual art which marijuana has altered his perception of. Ginsberg enjoys narcotic experimentation and expounds this strongly, but is aware of its dangers. Burroughs described heroin addiction as ‘The Sickness’[10], and Ginsberg is aware of the damaging nature of addiction, remaining a strong advocate only of non-addictive drugs. He is aware of the danger in drug abuse, self-consciously distancing his drug of choice from heroin.[11] It is not ‘drugs’ as a whole which Ginsberg encourages, only those with low levels of danger, those which open the mind to further artistic experience. The inner circle of the Beat Generation encouraged each other to experiment with drugs, sex and with literature. This is another sort of intimacy, different to sex and shared drug use – the swapping of literary forms, methods and topics – as well as very personal appearances in each others’ works – it is another way to live further.

Ginsberg and his friends travelled extensively, saw a lot and wrote a large amount; in writing about their lives they expressed how they lived, and why they did so. The Beats were all about living and experience, and ostensibly one cannot write whilst living – no matter how exciting a writer’s life is, surely he must pause it whilst recording his life? The Beat writers, however, managed to avoid this by writing whilst under the influence of drugs. Drug use was an exciting and somewhat subversive act (although Ginsberg, as mentioned, viewed marijuana usage as mainstream) which could be partaken of whilst writing. Writing would appear normally to be a distraction to the pursuit of experience, but for Ginsberg writing whilst ‘high’ was a way to ‘experience’ whilst writing. He wrote ‘Sunflower Sutra’ (1955) whilst Kerouac waited for the two of them to ‘go off somewhere party’[12], which illustrates the lifestyle these writers were leading. They were so connected that their writing affected their social life – Kerouac arrived late to a party (which probably involved sex and/or drugs in some capacity) because Ginsberg was completing a new poem. Here writing was restricting life but the combination, the co-existence, of the two is rather a beautiful situation.

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‘America’ also showcases Ginsberg’s pride regarding his sexuality: ‘I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel’ (p. 25), it ends. There is an exuberance in accepting where he lives and who he is; this is not a poem which condemns (or distances the poet from) America (‘It occurs to me that I am America’ (p. 23)), instead it accepts that as a citizen of his country he is accountable for its actions, rather than alien to them. Whilst the Lost Generation writers left America almost permanently, the Beats travelled but returned. Ginsberg is quoted as saying, on arrival from Europe in 1958, that he had returned ‘To save America.’[13] Rather a hyperbolic statement, albeit followed by an admission of not knowing what from, but a desire to improve his country is apparent. In ‘America’ he does not avoid reprimanding his country, but nor does he pretend he is separate from it. It is a measured, witty, description of a country he is not ashamed of. In promising to put his ‘shoulder to the wheel’ he accepts the need, and admits a desire, to improve his country, but by sexualising (or at least labelling the sexuality of) his shoulder, he allows his promise of work to be neither conformist nor truly subversive. To be truly subversive would not coexist with working, with making an effort towards society; however, truly conforming in 1950s America would necessitate marriage. His sexuality is implicitly subversive, merely by virtue of acting upon it – making it all the more exciting. A letter of Ginsberg’s expresses his shock at the idea of ‘when and where we can sleep with our friends’[14] being dictated by the government. And this does sound like something for him to be legitimately angry about. Ginsberg believes that sex should be controlled by the self – which is probably why the sex acts – and almost the form – of Howl seem so out of control. There is an exciting, exuberant promiscuity to his poem that emphasises sex as joyful, and as ‘fun’ – which is perhaps what the poem’s detractors found fault with. Sex is an enjoyable, expressive, pastime for Ginsberg – and why should it not be?

Kaddish deals with Ginsberg’s relationship with his mother and explores his own sexuality as part of growing up. At one point these collide, as he considers having sex with her:

One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her […] dress up round her hips, big slash of hair, scar of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers – ragged long lips between her legs – What, even, smell of asshole? I was cold – later revolted a little, not much – seemed perhaps a good idea to try […] She needs a lover. (pp. 50-51)

This description of his mother’s body is clinical, and its nature seems troubling – incest is a criminal, as well as social, misdemeanour – but Ginsberg looks on the scars and the ‘ragged’ labia of his mother and is repulsed by neither what he sees nor by considering sex with her. The end of the line – ‘she needs a lover’ – shows an acceptance and awareness of sex as a human need, required and a right. Sex is not just personal, it is social – it is ‘a lover’, not sex, he prescribes him mother. A personal, rather than physical, connection seems to be what he advises. And though he does not accept this assumed maternal proposition, he is able to view her as a sexual being despite describing an old and tired body. The description of smell, and the simile surrounding her scar tissue is unpleasant, yet evocative. Nor is there any guilt in Ginsberg’s observation of her in this fashion. Sex requires involvement and he considers experimentation. In his poems, sex allows interaction in a new manner, and is at its most exciting, interesting and poetic when it is spontaneous.

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And this is exactly how sex is constructed in Gregory Corso’s ‘Marriage’ (1960). Against the usual Beat mentality – and Corso’s own – the poem resists sex. However, this unexpected condemnation occurs when sex is expected, and by resisting it is perhaps making a stronger anti-establishment point than conventional sex would have. Corso’s poem describes the presumptive gazes of staff in the hotel he imagines honeymooning in, concluding ‘I’d be almost inclined not to do anything! […] I deny honeymoon!’[15] A wedding night is socially prescribed as an evening requiring, if not demanding, sex – and to Corso this is absolutely unerotic. When asked to perform sex by ‘indifferent’ (p. 211) clerks and bellboys he is unexcited. Sex that is taken for granted is without interest. At the opening of the poem he describes his acceptance of unconsummated passion, and the poem explores a desire to ‘be good’ (p. 210) and conform. The poem implies it is difficult, but desirable, much like his ‘The Bomb’(1958) accepts the danger of nuclear war to the point of directing ‘I love thee’[16] to the threat; Corso does not shy away from defining and accepting normality in an unorthodox fashion. His want to marry seems similar to his love for the bomb – acceptance of the inevitable. Sex, ‘Marriage’ seems to say, should not be confined (or part of) expected social movements, but should be free and spontaneous. It appears that for Corso it is subversion, rather than sex, which is the true and overpowering desire. It is only at the end of the poem he mentions love, and in the same stanza he introduces loneliness as the impetus for marriage. It seems that love and being alone are both unavoidable, as unavoidable as the bomb, and although Corso fears commitment and conforming, he fears loneliness more.

In his later poem, ‘Columbia U Poesy Reading – 1975’, Corso seems to praise drugs, but simultaneously cite them as a negative factor in his production of poetry. Whilst Ginsberg and (especially) Burroughs produced a lot of work under the influence of various substances, Corso seems to define this as an artistic weakness. The prologue of the poem comments, ‘as for Dopey-poo, it be a poet’s porogative [sic]’- a typical Beat attitude towards narcotics. The almost patronising way in which he invokes ‘dope’ betrays a closeness and an affection towards intoxication which is coherent with describing it as a prerogative. He, like Ginsberg, writes against the legislation surrounding drug use (‘the law has put its maw / into the poet’s medicine cabinet’ (p. 527)) and alludes to Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’(‘for me there is no Xanadu’ (p. 527)), a Romantic poem famous for its drug induced composition. Later, Corso has himself scream, ‘I’m not ashamed’ (p. 528) when asked by gods whether he prefers drugs to worshipping them. Having chosen earthly intoxication over spiritual muses, they desert him. The implication is unavoidably that drugs are not an exclusively positive thing. Corso does revel in sex and drugs (at one point bragging about his fertility: ‘I’ve made three flesh angels in life’ (p.525)) but seems to create an awareness of having betrayed his poetic self to the enjoyment of experience. There exists, in this poem, a decision that drugs and sex are less than the higher existence, the wider plane, which earlier Beat writing inmplied.

Ginsberg frequently asserted that drugs were viewed as a social problem, despite not believing that his lifestyle is not normative – Howl is claimed to have ‘defined a generation’[17] rather than a small part of it. Clellon Holmes wrote that it was ‘the blasting, beering, and bumming in [Beat] work, the restless, energetic surface of the life described, and not the world-and-mind weariness […] that caught […] fancies.’[18] This seems to agree with what has been said above. His essay, written in 1965, states that the Beats, and Beat writing, was about living – they were ‘Beat’ and excited by existence, not bored by their ‘beatitude’. Holmes is aware that the Beats are not showing off, that Ginsberg lives like he does because he wants to, not because he wants to be seen as living in such a way. Ginsberg enjoys drug use and homosexuality, and that is his prerogative and reason for the energy in his work – his poetry is filled by enjoyment of life. The people in Howl who ‘retired to Mexico to cultivate a habit, or Rocky Mount to tender Buddha or Tangiers to boys’ (p. 6) directly refers to close friends, all of whom chose to be where they wanted to be. The Beats were ultimately about truth to the self – and as in part this was achieved through drug use and sexuality, this is why these two activities appear so elevated by Beat verse. Freedom from society is not the ultimate aim – all of these writers were critically and academically lauded before the end of their careers; it was boredom they wished for escape from.

For few things are as romantic as jumping into a car with a friend and driving with no particular place in mind, and nor have drugs or promiscuity lost their appeal to the young – the aim of the Beats, and their methods continue, is forgetting death. Kerouac’s ‘231st Chorus’ (1959) opens with the lines: ‘Dead and dont [sic] know it, / Living and do.’[19] This seems to expand mortal fear to an awareness of its inevitability and of life as transient, thus providing more reason for life to be exciting. Death is the absence of life, here clarified – one will not be aware that they are dead once they are and thus if death is nothing, temporary life must be all. Corso expresses fear of aging and loneliness in ‘Marriage’, Kerouac here expresses fear of death and in Howl Ginsberg frequently evokes people who wish to escape from life. The true Beat fear seems to be not a drying up of sex or drug supply, but of youth, of the ability to be exciting. In death one is overwhelmed by nothing, it perhaps follows that to defeat death in life one must become overwhelmed through sexual or chemical intoxication. The mystical status of sex and drugs in this poetry seems to be rooted here – they prove and illustrate that one is alive, allowing an enjoyment and exuberance where perhaps it would not have otherwise occurred.

The Beat core were pro-drugs and pro-sex and used their experiences to create beautiful and often poignant poetry. Howl succeeds by evoking the lifestyle and culture of the poet, made all the more enjoyable because of the exciting nature of it and revelling in the lifestyles of those it describes. If it had been censored it would not have been the seminal, honest, piece it is. A wide spectrum of existence is explored in Howl and other poetry of this generation, and the fact that it may happen to idolise or focus upon what may not be considered the most ‘savoury’ part of life does not detract from the literature’s beauty. Death, sex and drugs recur throughout these poems, the latter two almost as a way to avoid the first. Sex and drugs are enjoyed and recommended by Ginsberg – the Beats want people to live to the full, spending as little time as possible worrying about the negative. And this is why, for the Beats, sex and drugs possess more than mystique, they possess the essence of freedom.

 

 

Bibliography

Primary Texts

Burroughs, William, Naked Lunch (London: Flamingo Modern Classic, 1993)

The Portable Beat Reader, ed. Ann Charters (London: Penguin Classics, 1992)

Corso, Gregory, ‘Columbia U Poesy Reading – 1975’, in The Portable Beat Reader, ed. Ann Charters (London: Penguin Classics, 1992), pp. 524-528

Corso, Gregory, ‘Marriage’, in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, ed. Paul Hoover (New York And London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994) pp. 210-213

Corso, Gregory, ‘The Bomb’, in The Portable Beat Reader, ed. Ann Charters (London: Penguin Classics, 1992), pp. 174-178

Ginsberg, Allen, ‘America’, in Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009), pp. 22-25

Ginsberg, Allen, ‘A National Hallucination’, in Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995, ed. Bill Morgan (London: Penguin Books, 2000), pp. 82-85

Ginsberg, Allen, Howl, in Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009), pp. 1-11

Ginsberg, Allen, Kaddish, in Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009), pp. 36-61

Ginsberg, Allen, ‘Letter to Ralph Ginzberg’, in Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995, ed. Bill Morgan (London: Penguin Books, 2000), pp. 167-170

Ginsberg, Allen, ‘Notes For Howl And Other Poems’, in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, ed. Paul Hoover (New York And London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994) pp. 635-637

Ginsberg, Allen, ‘On Neal’s Ashes’, in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, ed. Paul Hoover (New York And London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994), p. 143

Ginsberg, Allen, ‘The Great Marijuana Hoax’, in Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995, ed. Bill Morgan (London: Penguin Books, 2000), pp. 87-107

Kerouac, Jack, ‘231st Chorus’, in ‘Beat’ Poets, ed. Gene Baro (London: Vista Books, 1961)

Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition (London: Penguin Classics, 1986)

 

Secondary Sources

Burns, Jim, Beats, Bohemians and Intellectuals (Nottingham: Trent Editions, 2000)

Campbell, James, This Is The Beat Generation (London: Secker & Warburg, 1999)

Holmes, John Clellon, ‘from The Game of the Name’, in The Portable Beat Reader, ed. Ann Charters (London: Penguin Classics, 1992), pp. 615-622

The Beat Generation Writers, ed. A. Robert Lee (London and Chicago: Pluto Press, 1996)

 

Internet Sources

Campbell, James, ‘To save America’, guardian.co.uk, June 2, 2007. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/jun/02/featuresreviews.guardianreview21 [accessed 13th May 2010].

Holmes, John Clellon, ‘This Is The Beat Generation’, New York Times Magazine, November 16, 1952. Available at http://www.litkicks.com/Texts/ThisIsBeatGen.html [accessed 13th May 2010].

 

Footnotes

[1] John Clellon Holmes, ‘This Is The Beat Generation’, New York Times Magazine, November 16, 1952. Available at http://www.litkicks.com/Texts/ThisIsBeatGen.html [accessed 13th May 2010].

[2] Allen Ginsberg, ‘On Neal’s Ashes’, in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, ed. Paul Hoover (New York And London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994), p. 143.

[3] Allen Ginsberg, Howl, in Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009), pp. 1-11 (p. 4). All further references will be to this edition and given in the text.

[4] James Campbell, This Is The Beat Generation (London: Secker & Warburg, 1999), p. 153.

[5] Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish, in Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009), pp. 36-61 (p. 44). All further references will be to this edition and given in the text.

[6] Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition (London: Penguin Classics, 1986), p. 32.

[7] Allen Ginsberg, ‘America’, in Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009), pp.22-25 (p. 23). All further references will be to this edition and given in the text.

[8] Allen Ginsberg, ‘A National Hallucination’, in Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995, ed. Bill Morgan (London: Penguin Books, 2000), pp. 82-85 (p. 84). Also ‘millions’ in Allen Ginsberg, ‘The Great Marijuana Hoax’, in Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995, ed. Bill Morgan (London: Penguin Books, 2000), pp. 87-107 (p. 93).

[9] Allen Ginsberg, ‘The Great Marijuana Hoax’, p. 97.

[10] William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (London: Flamingo Modern Classic, 1993), p. 7.

[11] Allen Ginsberg, ‘A National Hallucination’, p. 84.

[12] Allen Ginsberg, ‘Notes For Howl And Other Poems’, in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, ed. Paul Hoover (New York And London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994) pp. 635-637 (p. 636).

[13] James Campbell, ‘To save America’, guardian.co.uk, 2nd June 2007. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/jun/02/featuresreviews.guardianreview21 [accessed 13th May 2010].

[14] Allen Ginsberg, ‘Letter to Ralph Ginzberg’, in Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995, ed. Bill Morgan (London: Penguin Books, 2000), pp. 167-170 (p. 167)

[15] Gregory Corso, ‘Marriage’, in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, ed. Paul Hoover (New York And London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994) pp. 210-213 (p. 211).

[16] Gregory Corso, ‘The Bomb’, in The Portable Beat Reader, ed. Ann Charters (London: Penguin Classics, 1992), pp. 174-178 (p. 177).

[17] James Campbell, ‘To save America’.

[18] John Clellon Holmes, ‘from The Game of the Name’, in The Portable Beat Reader, ed. Ann Charters (London: Penguin Classics, 1992), pp. 615-622 (p. 618).

[19] Jack Kerouac, ‘231st Chorus’, in ‘Beat’ Poets, ed. Gene Baro (London: Vista Books, 1961), p. 38.

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