||My manners, 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 love.
-Jack Kerouac, Satori in Paris
Ron Whitehead's 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 America
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). Guts everywhere.
Whitehead talks 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 it:
The antinomian legacy of Whitman, Pound, Miller, Kerouac, Ginsberg,Burroughs,
Ferlinghetti, and so many other poets, writers, artists, musicians
leads to our door and in this final moment having stood in the shadows
for too long, we step out and now we stand:
||on the brink on
at the ending of time
Time was, Time is, Time will be no more
And it's The Big Bang Epiphany
In the gap between thought and image
Voices streams racing
Whispering through our blood
Pleading through our bones
Strange activities of our nerves
The unconscious life of our minds
A tetrameter of iambs marching
Shouting Voices Without Restraint
Alchemically Transmutative Symbol Decipherment
The Book as Sacred Elixir
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 50s rockers combing back his
slick hair and one of those 60s experimenters with surreality and
one of those 70s 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 enthusiasm:
||agenbite of inwit
remorse of conscience farewell
This is the traveling advice 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 theguts 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 throughpost-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
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 HOLYMAN: 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