COLUMN SEVENTY-THREE, JULY 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)
The Declaration of Independence This Time: Selected Poems 1996-2000 by Ron Whitehead, Hozomeen Press
abominable at times, can be sweet. As
I grew older I became a drunk. Why?
Because I like ecstasy of the mind.
I'm a Wretch.
But I love
Jack Kerouac, Satori in Paris
poetry reminds me of the way WWII vet and renegade American filmmaker Sam Fuller
described Omaha Beach on D-Day: "Lined with the intestines of men."
Guts everywhere. And Fuller's thoughts on depicting war on film is
reminiscent of Whitehead's poetic voice: Fuller believed the only way to
authentically depict warfare would be to fire live ammo over the audience and
maybe even wound someone. Whitehead's
words?on the page or as live salvo?have these sort of guts: two-fisted,
hard-hitting, sans nonsense, and they often go right through you. His new collection, The Declaration of Independence
This Time: Selected Poems 1996-2000 (Hozomeen Press), is a concentrated display
of his arsenal of Beat Guts, Rock and Roll Swagger, and American Sweat.
1) Beat Guts. You
have to be tough to write poetry in America.
It is a tough place. The
dark streets are crowded with something more than night.
You have to be tough to write. Whitehead
knows this and he's proud of his filled-with-guts-lineage; this tough pride
runs throughout all his writing and makes his poems essays on poetic theory,
Beat tradition, and his hard-boiled American soul.
Not hard-boiled in the sense that nothing can get in.
Actually, it is the opposite: he lets everything in.
That is how tough he is. His
guts are packed with it all: Kentucky, Kerouac, Joyce, Rock and Roll,
Ferlinghetti, Elvis, injustice, justice, the Big Bang Epiphany, the pandemonium
moon, rocking chairs, coal miners, toads. He
tells us he "believes in non-violent fighting which creates new forms new
voices." He is a violent
non-fighter in a series of Kentucky haikus:
I go too far
Kentucky is his home
base but he goes too far across the globe promoting the Beats (he's the P. T
Barnum of the evolving Beat Celestial Circus he calls Insomniacathons), teaching
the Beats (he writes about them, publishes books on them, and crosses the planet
to talk about them), celebrating the Beats (he writes poems).
hard-boiled American as he tackles despair in "Death on My Left Shoulder? or
uses a kind of Beat Calculus to chart the ethereal in 'the Shape of Water?
or rewrites The Declaration of Independence and Yeats's 'the Second
Coming? to struggle with the past for a new world.
His fight against a brutal America of poverty and greed is combined with
a genealogy of heroic American rebels in "Calling the Toads: The Antinomian
Fire this Time," a kind of Burroughs cut-up of Beat scholar John Tytell's
description of the antinomian tradition and Whitehead's exuberant riffing on
legacy of Whitman, Pound, Miller, Kerouac,
The unconscious life of
A tetrameter of iambs
Voices Without Restraint
Transmutative Symbol Decipherment
The Book as Sacred
Manger du Livre
Eat the Book
Eat the Book and deny
the straw men Thoreau saw living in quiet desperation.
Deny quiet desperation and embrace loud exuberance.
Eat the Book and turn up the volume.
2) Rock and Roll Swagger.
Anyone who has ever heard Whitehead read his poetry knows that he's one
of those rock and rollers, one of those 50's rockers combing back his slick
hair and one of those 60's experimenters with surreality and one of those
70's punks pleasing Burroughs with their antinomian chants of BUGGER THE
QUEEN. He's a rock
poet. Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and
the blues are as influential upon Whitehead's verse as Jack Kerouac, Walt
Whitman, James Joyce, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
But it is the same tradition. Rock
is Whitehead's America. Rock
culture emerges out of Beat culture. Kerouac's
spontaneous bop prose was a declaration of fierce independence for the American
writer. Rock became the battle
music for the American revolution in consciousness.
Corporate monsters may tap into the life force of rock but they can never
suck out the Beat guts. Fiery
baby-chewing Moloch, because his mind is pure machinery, doesn't listen to the
Grateful Dead (Neal Cassady was practically an honorary early member), the Doors
(Ray Manzareck has said that without On the Road 'the Doors would never have
existed?), Dylan, Tom Waits, the Velvet Underground, the Soft Machine, the
Rolling Stones, David Bowie, the Clash, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Sonic Youth, the
Beastie Boys, Nirvana, R.E.M., Ron Whitehead.
Kerouac knew this when he wrote that "Beatles is spelled Beatles and
not Beetles." Dylan and the Clash
knew it when they went on tour with Allen Ginsberg.
Kurt Cobain knew it when he recorded 'the Priest They Called Him?
with Burroughs. Whitehead knows it
throughout his words.
The music began in
the tough, beat, lonesome American cry called the blues and Kerouac, high on
words and drunk on jazz, gave it a subject matter.
He gave it his life. Whitehead
celebrates this in the music of his writing, his affirmative swagger in the face
of guilt, decay, despair,
suffering. In "Bell and Drum?
he brashly solves Stephen Dedalus's problem with a punch of American
agenbite of inwit
remorse of conscience
This is the traveling
advice given in On the Road. This
is the glow at the center of all Kerouac's work, especially in the dark
confessions of Desolation Angels and Big Sur.
Kerouac is still the most critically underrated, overlooked, neglected
writer in American literature. And
yet his work is everywhere in American culture.
His books are just too tough to die.
His American Night is our American Night. Kerouac's tough compassion, Kerouac's gentle hard-boiled
soul grows today in rock, in Hunter S. Thompson's
tough talk about the American Dream, in Whitehead's poetry of guts.
His presence remains and reminds us: Tough poets are the unacknowledged
explorers of the guts of the world.
3) American Sweat.
In 1961, Kerouac described On the Road in a letter:
Dean and I were
embarked on a tremendous journey through post-Whitman America to FIND that
America and to FIND the inherent goodness in American man.
American Man and Child. "It
was really a story about 2 Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of
God. And we found him.
I found him in the sky, in Market Street San Francisco (those 2 visions),
and Dean had God sweating out of his forehead all the way.
THERE IS NO OTHER WAY OUT FOR THE HOLY MAN: HE MUST SWEAT FOR GOD.
It is tough to be a
writer in America. You have to be
tough to write, to survive, to roam, to live.
You have to sweat. It takes
a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger to save the world.
Whitehead is in the ring, pounding away at the flab of the universe,
punching his way out, sweating poems. He
is a non-violent fighter looking for a fight.
Whitehead sweats for God and the Beats in post-Whitman, post-Kerouac
John Rocco holds a Ph.D. in English and teaches Humanities at State University of New York Maritime. He is writing a book on James Joyce. He has published many academic articles on modern literature, music, and film. He has published four books of rock criticism: THE DOORS COMPANION, THE NIRVANA COMPANION, THE BEASTIE BOYS COMPANION, and DEAD RECKONINGS: THE LIFE AND TIME OF THE GRATEFUL DEAD, all for Schirmer Books. He co-edited ANOTHER E.E. CUMMINGS for W.W. Norton and Co. A freelance rock journalist he has contributed to a variety of publications from HIGH TIMES to THE STRANGER. He also reviews books for AMERICAN BOOK REVIEW. ##
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