Saturday, July 28, 2012

READING WHITMAN: The Gordon Parks Dimension

There’s an intriguing cultural cross-fertilization between the flint hills and prairies of eastern Kansas — a land of tallgrass prairie and thin-soiled grazing land, with KC as its urban hub — and the eastern seaboard, which Walt Whitman called home.
Oh it’s middle America out there all right, with its ball fields and ice cream fundraisers and shootings after midnight outside the local hamburger joint.

But consider these:

-Whitman visited the Kansas prairies and called them the future of American culture, in 1879.

-Teddy Roosevelt showed up at Osawatomie in 1911 to dedicate a park to the fiery abolitionist John Brown and kick off an attack on oligarchy and monopoly in America (one of the more electrifying speeches in American history, called ‘The New Nationalism.’)

-Politically, there’s the impact of midwestern progressivism embodied by Kansas journalists like William Allen White (Emporia Ks) and Julius Wayland (Girard Ks), whose overtly socialist paper “Appeal To Reason” published Eugene Debs, Mother Jones and Jack London — not to mention underwriting the undercover investigative journalism of Sinclair Lewis, which resulted in the great muckraker novel The Jungle.

-Then too there’s the activism of the radical coal miners of the Pittsburg area, commemorated by a sweeping mural at the Pittsburg Library with a depiction of the three day march of the “Army of the Amazons,’ thousands of minetown women rallying against strikebreakers during ‘three cold days in 1921.’ (

-Artistically, think Charlie Parker, Virgil Thomson, Langston Hughes, Ed Sanders — and Thomas Hart Benton, whose mentorship to Jackson Pollock has yet to befully recognized in the art world.

All of which provides context to the lifework of photographer Gordon Parks, who was reared in the slow-poking county-fair-going BBQ-eating 4H-club prairie town of Fort Scott, and his contribution to the KS-NY connection.

Park’s emergence on the scene in NYC as a photographer for Life was more than just an individual achievement  — in fact, he assiduously created a body of work which placed him as a key mid-20th century artistic advocate for the dignity of the underclass and the oppressed.

Let me put it this way. My visit to the Woody Guthrie Festival and the Gordon Parks Museum this week, to bring Whitman’s message of transcendental ‘this is what you shall do’ acceptance of others, had multidimensional references and connotations I hardly realized until I made the scene and checked things out.

As in previous years, the Okemah festival for Woody was enormously gratifying, further illustrating the connectedness of America’s great dust bowl balladeer to the entire nation and beyond, and positively declaring the place of Oklahoma poets in celebrating that (

But in Fort Scott, flanked by iconic Parks photos of Harlem families, street gangs, South American orphans and the inestimable ‘American Gothic,’ the words of Whitman, Steinbeck, Guthrie, Sandburg, Hughes and Maya Angelou achieved a new dimensionality I hadn’t really anticipated.

A fine crowd in a beautiful space at the local community college, the numbers swelled in part by good press coverage locally ( and folks who were in town for ‘family reunion week,’  a shout out to them.

This was also my first collaborative reading — and a very successful experiment, so a shout out too to traveling British poet Geraldine Green, who with her husband Geoff was also on a tour which included not only the Parks museum but the Woody Guthrie Festival and readings in Norman OK, Shawnee OK, Pittsburg KS and Kansas City.

In Fort Scott she and I fashioned a tandem reading of the Whitman and Beyond poets and additionally infused some Blake, Coleridge and Burns into the mix. A fabulous result, not least of which was how Geraldine brought down the house with Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise.’ I hope we’ll have a chance to reprise in future appearances.

Kudos and thanks to OK and KS poets who hosted us and read with us along the way, including Carol Hamilton, Dorothy Alexander, Nathan Brown, Carl Sennhein and Jim Spurr (OK); and Al Ortolani, JT Knoll and the good folks at Prospero’s Books in Kansas City (KS). And David Amram, ambassador of bop, who once again extemporized on piano behind two hours of Woody Guthrie lovin’ poets in Okemah.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

BEAT KANSAS: 'Pure Spring Water, Gathered In A Tower Where Florence Is Set On A Hill'

    'Anybody can make Paris holy, but I can make Topeka holy.'
     Jack Kerouac

    Us bi-coastal types tend to focus on New York and San Francisco as the dual poles of the Beat Generation. It's a superficial view at best -- the circumstances and personalities of the movement were fundamentally national in scope... from Neal Cassady's Denver connection to Bill Burroughs' place in Texas, and in every crazy encounter on the road from Chicago to Butte and on to Tangiers and Benares and Katmandu.

     Did I mention Kansas?

     The reference points are everywhere. Neal Cassady’s 30,000 word lost letter to Kerouac, progenitor of bop prosody hand scrawled en route to Kansas City. Kerouac’s 'Kansas fields  & night-cows in the secret wides, crackerbox towns with a sea at the end of every street.’ Old Bill Burroughs standing outside his home in Lawrence attempting to blow holes in some artwork with a handgun.  Maryville KS's Michael McClure of Six Gallery fame, who in 1964 stood on the beach with Kerouac in Bixby Canyon and heard him recite the tone-poem which concludes Big Sur. 

    The central figures in the Beat generation are all connected to America’s heartland, Second generation Beat constellation figures too -- Moon Dog, the mysterious character who played his drum in NYC doorways; Zap cartoon’s S Clay Wilson and Charley Plymell. Dennis Hopper emerged on the Venice Beach scene in LA from Dodge City. The Fugs’ Ed Sanders shook things up in lower Manhattan, but got his start in Kansas City.
     One has to mention too the KC jazz musicians-- Charlie Parker and Lester Young in particular -- whose aesthetic offered dimension and rootedness to Beat prosody, acknowledged in this well-known Kerouac passage from On The Road:
    Once there was Louis Armstrong blowing his beautiful top in the muds of New Orleans; before him the mad musicians who had paraded on official days and broke up their Sousa marches into ragtime. Then there was swing, and Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and subtlety--leaning to it with glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world.
    Then had come Charlie Parker, a kid in his mother's woodshed in Kansas City, blowing his taped-up alto among the logs, practicing on rainy days, coming out to watch the old swinging Basie and Benny Moten band that had Hot Lips Page and the rest Charlie Parker leaving home and coming to Harlem, and meeting mad Thelonious Monk and madder Gillespie--Charlie Parker in his early days when he was flipped and walked around in a circle while playing. Somewhat younger than Lester Young, also from KC, that gloomy, saintly goof in whom the history of jazz was wrapped; for when he held his horn high and horizontal from his mouth he blew the greatest; and as his hair grew longer and he got lazier and stretched-out, his horn came down halfway; till it finally fell all the way and today as he wears his thick-soled shoes so that he can't feel the sidewalks of life his horn is held weakly against his chest, and he blows cool and easy getout phrases. Here were the children of the American bop night.
     Historian Doug Brinkley's quoted as saying that Kerouac's writing was a 'Valentine to America,' but I like to think the relationship between those who love the world in each of its particulars, with a transcendental vision, gets a valentine back. 

     Meaning it's not Kerouac who makes Topeka holy, or Topeka that makes Kerouac holy. It's the mutuality between particulars, place and person. It's the vision thing.

      Sure seems that's the kind of mutuality -- the vision thing -- that happened to Allen Ginsberg as he raced across the great plains of America in the back of a Volkswagon bus in 1966, with a tape machine in his lap and Peter Orlovsky driving. 

    That's how Ginsberg gathered the material which later became the poem Wichita City Sutra, of particular power for me and in my opinion a worthy companion to the more well known Sunflower Sutra. Climaxing below a watertower ’where Florence is set on a hill’ as he and Orlovsky stop for tea & gas, the poem firmly demonstrates that the visionary transcendental moment can occur anywhere -- in this case, in the lonely dark Kansas night. 

     Here's an extract:    
Allen Ginsberg 
I'm an old man now, and a lonesome man in Kansas
          but not afraid
                    to speak my lonesomeness in a car,
                    because not only my lonesomeness
                                it's Ours, all over America,
                                                     O tender fellows--
                                & spoken lonesomeness is Prophecy
                                in the moon 100 years ago or in
                                          the middle of Kansas now.
It's not the vast plains mute our mouths
                                that fill at midnite with ecstatic language
            Not the empty sky that hides
                                           the feeling from our faces
            It's not a God that bore us that forbid
                     our Being, like a sunny rose
                                          all red with naked joy
                     between our eyes & bellies, yes
All we do is for this frightened thing
                     we call Love, want and lack --
            fear that we aren't the one whose body could be
                     beloved of all the brides of Kansas City,
                     kissed all over by every boy of Wichita--
            O but how many in their solitude weep aloud like me--
                     On the bridge over the Republican River
                                almost in tears to know
                                           how to speak the right language --
                     on the frosty broad road
                                uphill between highway embankments
                     I search for the language
                                          that is also yours--
                                almost all our language has been taxed by war.
Radio antennae high tension
           wires ranging from Junction City across the plains--
           highway cloverleaf sunk in a vast meadow
                                lanes curving past Abilene
                                          to Denver filled with old
                                                               heroes of love--
Now, speeding along the empty plain,
                      no giant demon machine
                                visible on the horizon
           but tiny human trees and wooden houses at the sky's edge
                      I claim my birthright!
                                reborn forever as long as Man
                                          in Kansas or other universe--Joy
                      reborn after the vast sadness of War Gods!
A lone man talking to myself, no house in the brown vastness to hear,
                      imaging the throng of Selves
                                 that make this nation one body of Prophecy
                                          languaged by Declaration as
I call all Powers of imagination
           to my side in this auto to make Prophecy
I lift my voice aloud,
            make Mantra of American language now,
                             I here declare the end of the War!
                                         Ancient days' Illusion!
                     and pronounce words beginning my own millennium.
Let the States tremble,
            let the Nation weep,
                       let Congress legislate it own delight
                                  let the President execute his own desire--
this Act done by my own voice,
                                          nameless Mystery--
published to my own senses,
                               blissfully received by my own form
            approved with pleasure by my sensations
                       accomplished in my own imagination
            60 miles from Wichita
                                          near El Dorado,
                                                     The Golden One,
in chill earthly mist
            houseless brown farmland plains rolling heavenward
                                                                        in every direction
     Sound good to you? Does to me. Good enough to figure that this month, as I travel through Oklahoma and Kansas, 
I'll pay a visit to Florence myself!
                    AG NOTE: "In 1965 I ran into Bob Dylan in SF and asked him for money to buy a 
                    tape machine. He gave me enough money to buy a small portable. I drove across 
                    country with the tape machine in the back of a Volkswagen bus from January on 
                    through March ‘ 66. Peter Orlovsky at the wheel and a little table in the Volkswagen 
                    camper in the back where I sat looking at the landscape and made a recorded time 
                    capsule collage of sensory imagery  -- the landscape, broadcasts from the car radio, 
                    conversations in the car tags, newspaper headlines, ruminations, the seeds of my own 
                    convictions in the back seat all alone."