About 12 years ago, I had a twinkling of an inkling of what "Beatnik glory" might mean, of what it might mean to be singingly silly. I belonged to a jazz-and-poetry group started by Gregory Foster – formerly a cowboy, carnival worker, journalist, roadie for a famous jazzman, Miles Davis’ cab driver, Thelonius Monk’s chess partner, a high-school dropout, the best-read human being I have ever met, and just old enough to have been, authentically, a Beat poet and a bona fide member of the Beat generation. It was Foster who, having known the real thing in San Francisco and New York City, brought the jazz/poetry scene to Charlottesville. His way of reciting was the true Beat way.
Goaded by Foster, a group of us chanted and half-danced our poetry and jazz in night spots, prisons, coffee houses, in the street and the occasional ante-bellum mansion, culminating our "career" at the University’s Old Cabell Hall. Leroi Moore (eventually of Dave Mathews Band) and John D’earth were part of our group that glorious evening for which each of us received $17 in pure profit. Until recently, I preserved a huge cardboard prop we wielded onstage, a gigantic bottle of "poetry pills" that we pretended to pop as an anti-drug, pro-poetry message. ("Pop poetry, not pills!")
There were other healthy highs, sometimes touched with a bit of fear. Performing at a local prison once, I noticed that there was one among the inmates who was rigidly unsmiling, unlike the other men, who had welcoming smiles on their faces. He glared throughout our gig. I was terrified when he marched straight up toward me. Instead of attacking, he shook my hand and said earnestly, "If I could have learned to express myself like you people, I would not be here now!"
The high point of our benevolent bad taste was probably the somewhat problematic "marriage" ceremony we performed at the Eastern Standard nightclub Downtown. Well, we married two American myths, convinced that aspects of American culture desperately needed togetherness. I confess it: we married Elvis Presley to Emily Dickinson! We paraded their icons around, recited their words to music, extemporized a wedding ritual – and, now they are married in Heaven. If they have since got divorced or separated, I have not heard about it.
Of course, all this was but the shadow of Beatnik glory in its prime, but we did have the beatific guidance of our own Whitman, Foster. We pretty much avoided the flipside of Beatnik glory – Beatnik sordidness. We got sore occasionally, but not too sordid. We did belong for a brief while to "the family of friends" the Beats advocated. And perhaps we felt a little of Allen Ginsberg’s "supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul."
And then, in 1998, two Beat American myths entered unto Charlottesville to be part of our vertiginous Virginia Film Festival, which that year explored the concept of "Cool." Ed Sanders, poet and leader of the hilarious Beat rock group The Fugs and priestly Diane di Prima were both the essence of cool and very, very hot. Once Queen of Poverty in Greenwich Village, famously loyal to love and poetry, di Prima now looked regal. She read her poetry magnificently, accompanied on the piano by the great Beat composer David Amram. We shared some amiably alchemic chats under a mural of a supernatural fish at a local Japanese restaurant. She gave me a Tibetan Buddhist blessing and I was presumptuous enough to give her the blessing of Bastet, the Egyptian cat goddess (although for the most part I am a follower of the Shekinah). What moved me enormously was when she dropped her cool before two photographs in a display of Beat Generation photography I had mounted at the then Bayly Art Museum. The first photograph showed Jack Kerouac literally inundated with excited groupies, a sea or wave of flesh. Hesitantly, I asked her if, indeed, as she related somewhat pornographically in Memoirs of a Beatnik, she had simultaneously taken to bed one strenuous but gleeful evening Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg , two ballet dancers and a number of other Beat writers.
In a priestly manner, she assured me that that part of her memoir was accurate, but then we came to an image of real love and pain. I was shocked to see her weep before a photograph of herself and poet LeRoi Jones (now again-controversial Amiri Baraka) sitting together in a well-known tavern.
She had had a child by Baraka, then married to the poet Hettie Jones. Baraka hated white people, women, Jews, Christians, non-Marxists, middleclass Blacks, Americans. To say the least, their love could not last. Di Prima, strong and inspired, wept before that photograph. Beatnik glory, Beatnik sorrow.
In her intoxicatingly beautiful recent memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, the violence-hating di Prima mentions casually appalling things about her relationship with Baraka – things even more frightening to think about nowadays. But she merrily and courageously bore many children to many people and sustained many eccentric friends and lovers. Moreover, nobly wrote her own work and printed the work of her friends with the highest and loveliest of Romantic ideals. In the midst of Beatnik poverty, she constantly upheld the Platonic and Keatsian identity of beauty, truth, and goodness.
Di Prima says: "Beauty is Truth…we took refuge in that place…To be an artist: outcast…and explorer…Pushing the bounds of …the humanly possible, the shape of a human life. Continual allegory."
Of a woman’s life, pushing the limits.
Opening endlessly to the image, words. The rhythm or pattern, sound – the vector swiftly drawn in the dark. And fleeting as lightning….
It wasn’t just the work, though the work was clearly blessed. Nor was it the rewards, which were none, as far as we knew. It was the life itself: a calling to the holiest life that was offered in our world. An artist.
Continual offering of our minds and hearts. Offering impersonally our most personal passion…What comfort we could give, and give each other. This beauty. Compassion disguised as aesthetics."