If coffee and
§ Home § Search § SoupTales § Any comments?
Soup and the Beat Generation
(e-SoupSong 16: August 1, 2001)
ONCE UPON A TIME, I packed up the materials from our End-the-War-in-Vietnam information table, stowed them in boxes, and walked across Syracuse U.'s quad to H.B. Crouse Hall. I filed into its basement auditorium, found a seat up front, looked up--and there he was: Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in white robes and elephant bells, wild black hair flying, squinting through thick rimmed glasses, standing very quietly next to his lover, still lanky Peter Orlovsky. He was briefly introduced, just stood there for a long minute, eyes like buttonhooks as his friend Ferlinghetti would say, seizing us up. Then he blinked, began to clash his finger cymbals, began to HOWL:
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...."
At which point he began the litany of "who" these best minds were--all the beat and strung out people he knew, including those
"...who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup
I can still see Ginsberg's soulful wince when he cried "ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you're really in the total animal soup of time--"
Okay, I probably was not focusing on the soup imagery back then. But I am now, and I think to good purpose.
WHO ARE THE BEATS AND WHY ARE THEY SAYING ALL THOSE THINGS ABOUT SOUP?
It's not easy to define the Beats, cause they kept evolving and accreting new dimensions and new members for, really, some 50 years. But it's for sure that the whole scene began around 1944 in New York City when William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg came together in mutual friend Lucien Carr's apartment...and ignited.
According to them, "Beat" started out meaning "beaten down" as they themselves were bummed by conventionality and preferred hobnobbing with dope addicts and the seamy side of life. A very young Ginsberg writes in THE SHROUDED STRANGER, "I sup my soup from old tin cans / And take my sweets from little hands / In Tiger Alley near the jail / I steal away from the garbage pail." Ouch.
But as they talked and wrote and wrote and talked and drank coffee and took illegal drugs and ate soup and talked and wrote, they changed the meaning--they changed Beaten Down to The Beat of Jazz, to BEATitude and transcendence. They knew exactly what they DIDN'T want--social conformity, narrow moral standards, industrialization, big government, anything that smacked of authority. But they really didn't know what they DID want. So they all got on the road to find out...going in very different directions...but never losing their sense of friendship and brotherhood, which was really their highest value of all.
Ginsberg was born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1926. He wrote poetry--fired by Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Blake--from his earliest boyhood (Dad was a minor poet, socialist, and highschool teacher; Mom, a radical communist, nudist, and ultimately went mad). Forging a Beat scene with his new friends while at Columbia U., he was kicked out of school, put in a little time in the loony bin, tried living a straight life, failed, then began crisscrossing America, writing poetry and looking for meaning. He wasn't published until 1955, when he riveted the literary world with his reading of HOWL at Six Gallery in San Francisco. (That "Carl" in the opening quote? Carl Solomon, a friend from the psychiatric ward.) Thanks, in part, to HOWL being pasted with a well publicized obscenity charge, everyone went out and bought the book...and he soared to the top of the pop culture charts. Then he traveled...and traveled...and traveled: India, Japan, Morocco, Paris, Cuba, Prague, all over the U.S. In the 60s he reinvented himself into the hippie/anti-war movement (at which point I saw him in 1965). In the 70s he accepted Tibetan Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche as his personal guru and helped found the Jack Kerouac School of Dissembodied Poetics at Trungpa's Naropa Institute in Colorado. In the 80s he joined the punk rock movement. In the 90s he meditated on his failing, disease-ridden body and died of liver cancer on April 15, 1997. Ferlinghetti wrote the poem HE about him:
"...He is a cat who creeps at night
According to his friends, Ginsberg loved making soup so much that he had a special ledge installed outside his kitchen window, where he could cool his twelve-gallon stockpot.
Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1922 of French-Canadian parents (Dad a printer with gambling and alcohol problems; "Mamere" a hardnosed, conservative matriarch). He spoke only joual French until he was 6. Inspired by THE SHADOW radio show then novelist Thomas Wolfe, he wrote stories from a very young age. He went to Columbia U. on a football scholarship, dropped out of school and joined the merchant marines. Between sailings, he hooked up with the Beats in NYC, soaked up jazz, and wrote his heart out. After his conventional novel THE TOWN AND THE CITY was published in 1950, he took to the road with serious purpose. Fired up by Tokay wine, coffee, and marijuana, he developed a stream-of-consciousness, unedited, jazz-rhythm style of writing--pretty much exclusively about what he and his friends were doing and thinking. ON THE ROAD wasn't published until 1957; 16 other books were published in his lifetime. Burned out and firmly under Mamere's thumb in the 1960s, he sank into profound alcoholism and died of a massive esophageal hemorrhage on October 21, 1969, a year and a half after his On-The-Road hero Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) just keeled over dead one day in Mexico while walking along railroad tracks.
In 1966, Ginsberg said this about him: "I think the best poet in the United States is Kerouac still.... The main reason is that he's the most free and the most spontaneous. Has the greatest range of association and imagery in his poetry. Also in MEXICO CITY BLUES the sublime as subject matter. And in other words the greatest facility at what might be called projective verse. If you want to give it a name." Burroughs said, "During all the years I knew Kerouac, I can't remember ever seeing him really angry or hostile. It was the sort of smile he gave in reply to my demurs, in a way you get from a priest who knows you will come to Jesus sooner or later--'You can't walk out on the Shakespeare Squad, Bill,' he'd say."
Sometime lover Joyce Glassman Johnson talked about how Kerouac wrote ON THE ROAD in 20 days on that one long scroll of teletype paper, fueled only by coffee and Lipton's pea soup. She also said she cried when he called her in drunken stupor in 1964 and told her, "You never wanted anything but a little ol' pea soup."
Burroughs was born in 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri, of a well-to-do family (grandpa invented the adding machine). Knowing himself to be gay, he had a hard time fitting into the midwest society scene and spent a lot of time reading and writing pulp fiction. He graduated from Harvard in 1936; drifted through pre-war Europe, studying a semester in Vienna; and unexpectedly married a Jewish woman in Dubrovnik to help her escape the Nazis. Back in the States, he worked in the family giftshop, failed to get into the Navy, failed to get into the American Field Service or Bill Donovan's spy group (the OSS), then worked in a detective agency and as an exterminator in Chicago. In 1943, he followed friend Lucien Carr to NYC, bonded with the Beats, became a heroin addict, and married Joan Vollmer Adams, who said he made love "like a pimp." Despite marriage, children, addiction, and run ins with the law (he allegedly played "William Tell" with Joan, anyway shooting her dead in Mexico City), he traveled all over the world and fed his habit in exotic places. In 1953, with Ginsberg's help, he published JUNKY, a straightforward account of his life as an addict. NAKED LUNCH followed in 1959--and this surreal junkie bio slashed with social satire ultimately shot him to pop icon status when it was charged, tried, and convicted of obscenity in a Boston court (a ruling ultimately overturned by the Massachusetts Supreme Court). Falling in and out of addiction throughout his long life, he died of a heart attack in his Lawrence, Kansas, home on August 2, 1997 at the age of 83--just 4 months after Ginsberg's death.
Kerouac said about him: "Tall, 6 foot 1, strange, inscrutable because ordinary looking (scrutable), like a shy bank clerk with patrician thin lipped cold blue lipped face."
To my knowledge, this bony guy never thought about food at all. It was heroin and drug soup all the way.
Then, beyond these three, there were many others who met and bonded with them as they restlessly moved from place to place--who then became part of their scene and their story...and vice versa. Richard Corso. Gary Snyder. Michael McClure. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Robert Creeley. Charles Olson. Many more.
Ginsberg talked for 50 years about Sacramental Photographs, Sacramental Friendships, Sacramental This, and Sacramental That. This was a huge value of the Beats: friendship and brotherhood. Look at the hundreds and hundreds of pictures they took of each other, arms around each other, lit up like Christmas trees. And soup, sacramental soup, often close by. How about that famous photo taken during the filming of PULL MY DAISY in 1959? There they are: 5 animated guys drinking coffee and eating soup. How about Ginsberg's photo album, showing Bob Creeley with an over-the-glasses look, a just finished bowl of soup in front of him; soup with poet friends at San Francisco's Trieste Cafe; shchi with Yevgeny Yevtushenko at his dacha Peredelkino; and Chinese take-out soup in china bowls with an older, bloated Peter Orlovsky. Joyce Glassman Johnson remembers all the regular Saturday night parties in NYC, "like giant vibrating rush-hour trains filled with swaying passengers, all being borne along to some further destination--the next love affair, the next party, the next hangover, the next 5 a.m. bowl of wonton soup on Mott Street.
If coffee and wine were the Beat sacraments of conversation...and drugs the sacrament of personal transcendance...then soup was the sacrament of friendship and community.
SOUP IN BEAT POETRY
It crops up in the most unexpected places.
In the 182nd Chorus of his MEXICO CITY BLUES, Kerouac writes:
"The Essence of Existence
Gregory Corso, in his ironic A DREAMED REALIZATION excuses carrion-eaters--and us, by extension--their diet:
"Life. It was Life jabbed a spoon in their mouths.
David Meltzer's REVELATION invokes imagined friendship over meat soup ("nikku nabe") with 16th century poet Basho, wielding chopsticks:
"It comes to this:
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, concludes his ironic poem TENTATIVE DESCRIPTION OF A DINNER TO PROMOTE THE IMPEACHMENT OF PRESIDENT EISENHOWER by saying:
"And finally after everyone who was anyone and after
Robert Creeley's SOUP is dedicated to friends Mike and Joanna:
And his rather self-absorbed SOPA goes like this:
"That old black goober that I ate
Then there's the grandaddy of them all: Buddhist poet Gary Snyder's HOW TO MAKE STEW IN THE PINACATE DESERT: RECIPE FOR LOCKE & DRUM. Okay, I'm stretching this stew into soup by adding just a little more water from the jeep can, but you've got to admit it sums up the warmth and camaraderie of the Beats, leaving civilization behind, leaving women behind, achieving that "Nectar Soup" experience. It was Gary Snyder who starred in Kerouac's DHARMA BUMS as Japhy Ryder.
"A.J. Bayless market bent wire roller basket buy up parsnips,
When a journalist sneered at the poem as being pure technique, poet Robert Creeley objected: "It is addressed to two friends.... Yes, you can literally take this poem as a recipe for how to make stew, but in this way of saying something there's also an emotional context, a kind of feeling. That, to my mind, is the significant part of this poem. ...This particular emotion is of an address to friends meant as a warmth which all three shall share, therefore anyone."
IN THE END, BEAT SOUP OUTLIVES THE BEATS
Fittingly, one of Ginsberg's last acts on earth was...to make soup.
According to Steve Silberman in a New Yorker article dated 3/19/2001, "on March 19, 1997, Allen Ginsberg drew up a shopping list in his newly acquired loft, on East Thirteenth Street. He signed and dated the list--as he did with nearly every scrap of paper that passed through his hands, for the benefit of future scholars--and then gave it to a friend, who went out to buy the ingredients Ginsberg needed for a meal he had never prepared before. He was going to cook fish chowder.
"The next evening, Ginsberg served the soup to a handful of friends and stashed the leftovers in the freezer. A little more than two weeks later, on April 5th, he died, suddenly, of liver cancer. He had already sold his archives, in 1994, to Stanford University for a million dollars...the rest of his possessions were dispersed at an auction a year after his death. About the only trace of Ginsberg remaining on East Thirteenth Street was the leftover fish chowder."
Turns out, Ginsberg's secretary, Bob Rosenthal, could not bring himself to throw out the two jars. In fact, he is currently on a crusade to establish a permanent exhibit in some museum entitled "The Last Soup of Allen Ginsberg." The Met turned the idea down flat...and so did the Guggenheim. Now friend Jason Shinder thinks he has a winner: the Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A., which exhibits anthropological exotica. Stay tuned.
p.s. Many thanks to Ray for all the Beat videos, books, and CDs--and what a surprise to hear Jack Kerouac scat sing "Ain't We Got Fun"! Also to J.P. Craig, University of Iowa, for helping me track down the Snyder poem, and to Jenny from Londonderry, Connecticut, for tipping me to Ginsberg's Last Soup.
Sources: Mel Ash's Beat Spirit; ed. Donald M. Allen's The New American Poetry: 1945-1960; 3-CD set The Beat Generation; William Burrough's Junky and Naked Lunch; Carolyn Cassady's Off the Road; Ann Charter's The Portable Jack Kerouac; Robert Creeley's Collected Poems, 1945-75>; Lawrence Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind, The Secret Meaning of Things, and Starting from San Francisco; Robert Frank's film Pull My Daisy; ed. Holly George-Warren's Rolling Stone Book of the Beats; Allen Ginsberg's Death and Fame, Poems 1993-1997 and Snapshot Poetics; Michelle Green's The Dream at the End of the World; ed. Jon Halper's Gary Snyder; film Heart Beat; film Jack Kerouac's Road; Joyce Johnson's Minor Characters; Jack Kerouac reads On the Road(CD); Jack Kerouac's Book of Blues, Dharma Bums, and On the Road; Barry Miles' William Burroughs; The Paris Review's Beat Writers at Work; film Paul Bowles in Morocco; Gary Snyder's The Back Country and Turtle Island; and film The Source.* * *
NEXT MONTH: MURDER SHE COOKED--SOUP AS A MURDER WEAPON