Saturday Apr. 18, 2015

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Nineteen

Carrie and I were hanging our wash on the roof
of the hostel in Riomaggiore—all we had carried
in our packs while remaining half-dressed—when
the Italian couple came up to shower. They shared
a stall, not caring about us and our sodden rainbow
of underwear on the line. From the roof
we could see the Mediterranean bang the cliffs,
and other roof gardens, with cats and coral
geraniums like this one. In the shower that morning,
I had sudsed my hair under the open sky,
the fingers of the sun electric, like God’s
on the Sistine Chapel ceiling I’d been herded in
to see the week before. Now the cotton partitions
trembled, and the couple’s feet danced
in the spray, her small red-painted toes digging
into the tops of his feet. When she cried out,
Carrie looked at me, and I know we were thinking
the same thing, as the couple caterwauled in the tongue
we wanted to learn, and the inbred cats basked,
and our clothes released the grime of early spring,
and the son of the hostel owner went to scout another train.

“Nineteen” by Katrina Vandenberg from Atlas. © Milkweed Editions, 2004. Reprinted with permission of the author.  (buy now)

It is the birthday of the man who inspired the word "beatnik" in the 1950s: poet Bob Kaufman (books by this author), born Robert Garnell Kaufman, in New Orleans, Louisiana (1925). Kaufman's mother was a Roman Catholic woman from Martinique who loved to play the piano and buy books at auctions. His father was a German Jew; "my Negro suit has Jew stripes," Kaufman often said of his lineage. Details of his life are hazy because he didn't keep a diary or leave behind any letters, and while he completed three volumes of poetry, he preferred to recite his poems in coffee houses rather than write them down.

As a teenager, he joined the Merchant Marine. In his 20 years as a sailor, he circled the globe nine times and survived four shipwrecks. On his first ship, the Henry Gibbons, he became friends with the first mate, who lent him books and encouraged him to read.

It was at sea when he first read about the Beat poets, many of whom also had maritime ambitions. Gary Snyder wanted to experience the culture in port cities around the world, and he worked as a seaman during the summer of 1948 and again in the mid-1950s. When Jack Kerouac, as a freshman at Columbia, failed chemistry and lost his scholarship, he joined the Merchant Marine to make money to re-enroll. Allen Ginsberg was suspended from Columbia for fighting with his dormitory housekeeper, and he followed Kerouac into the Merchant Marine. (Ginsberg tried marijuana for the first time on his maiden voyage.) When he was 22, Lawrence Ferlinghetti fell in love with the sea when he lived on the Maine coast for a summer and worked scraping moss off rocks. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enrolled in Midshipmen's School and was deployed at different lighthouses and naval watch posts throughout World War II.

When Kaufman was back on land, he studied briefly at the New School in New York City, where he met William S. Burroughs and Ginsberg. The three eventually moved to San Francisco and joined Gregory Corso, Kerouac, and Ferlinghetti to form the heart of the Beat movement.

Improvisational jazz influenced Kaufman's street performances and earned him the nickname "The Original Bebop Man," but it also earned him the attention of local police. In 1959, he was tossed into jail 39 times for disorderly conduct. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen said he had Kaufman's spontaneous oral poetry in mind when he created the word "beatnik."

Later, Kaufman cofounded Beatitude magazine, which helped launch the careers of many other poets, but he continued to live a mostly itinerant life, filled with drugs, a stint at Bellevue Hospital, where he underwent electroshock treatments, and continued police harassment. By the mid '60s, he had published two volumes of poetry — Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (1965) and Golden Sardine (1967)and in the early '80s, his friends gathered old recordings and notes and had them published as The Ancient Rain: Poems 1958 - 1978 (1981).

When President Kennedy was shot in 1963, Kaufman took a vow of silence and didn't speak again until he walked into a coffee shop in 1975 and recited his poem, "All Those Ships that Never Sailed." He said:

All those ships that never sailed
The ones with their seacocks open
That were scuttled in their stalls ...
Today I bring them back
Huge and transitory
And let them sail
Forever.

His wife encouraged Kaufman to write down his many poems, but he wished to stay hidden from history.

He said, "I want to be anonymous. My ambition is to be completely forgotten."

It was on this day in 1958 that the U.S. Government dropped its treason charges against the poet Ezra Pound (books by this author).

Pound had been arrested in 1945 because of speeches he had been delivering on Italian radio, in which he praised Mussolini and fascism, and criticized American policy. He was extremely anti-Semitic, blaming the world's problem's on the Jews. He practiced each speech before he delivered it, and he used various down-home American voices for each of them — he might be folksy one broadcast, speak in a drawl the next, and in a nasal Boston accent for the third. He kept careful notes of each broadcast and his performance — for one, he wrote: "Excellent delivery last night. Voice absolutely clear and every word 'visible,' except for a few Orful KRRumpzzz! of static or atmospheric or whatever that BLITZED out a few phrases." He continued with his speeches even after the United States joined World War II in December of 1941, so it was at that point that his work became not just offensive but treasonous.

After his arrest, Pound was extradited to the United States and committed to a federal asylum, St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Over his 13 year confinement Pound was visited by an odd combination of white supremacists who admired his politics, and distinguished American writers who admired his poetry or his history of generosity to other artists, among them Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Thornton Wilder, Randall Jarrell, Katherine Anne Porter, and T.S. Eliot.

Ernest Hemingway wrote to his friend Archibald MacLeish, who was campaigning for Pound's release: "Thanks for sending the stats of Ezra's rantings. He is obviously crazy. I think you might prove he was crazy as far back as the latter Cantos. He deserves punishment and disgrace but what he really deserves most is ridicule. He should not be hanged and he should not be made a martyr of. He has a long history of generosity and unselfish aid to other artists and he is one of the greatest living poets. It is impossible to believe that anyone in his right mind could utter the vile, absolutely idiotic drivel he has broadcast. His friends who knew him and who watched the warping and twisting and decay of his mind and his judgement should defend him and explain him on that basis. It will be a completely unpopular but an absolutely necessary thing to do."

Writers and the media pressured the government to release Pound, and on April 14th, 1958, a motion was filed for dismissal of Pound's indictment. Among the statements was one by Robert Frost, who wrote: "None of us can bear the disgrace of our letting Ezra Pound come to his end where he is. It would leave too woeful a story in American literature." On this day in 1958, the government agreed to dismiss the indictment against Pound, and the 72-year-old poet was released. He returned to Italy, where he spent the rest of his life.

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