Monday, December 29, 2008

Creative Crossroads...

The poem that changed America
This is an interesting collection of essays reflecting on different individuals experience of Allen Ginsberg's masterpiece Howl, as well as it's influence on American culture.

As described by Powells Books:
"First published in 1956, Allen Ginsberg's Howl is a prophetic masterpiece—an epic raging against dehumanizing society that overcame censorship trials and obscenity charges to become one of the most widely read poems of the century."

American Poetry points out:
"Howl is dedicated to Carl Solomon, a Dadaist and prose poet whom Ginsberg met at Rockland Mental Hospital while visiting his mother there in the early 1950s. The third section of Howl is a show of support for his friend, still in Rockland suffering from depression and contemplating suicide. Ginsberg equates Solomon's battle with that of the average man trying to eke out a living in today's commercial society.

The poem's public debut was itself an unforgettable event.
"Allen had been drinking wine throughout the evening and, by his own later admission, he was intoxicated by the time the lights dimmed and he began his reading. Somewhat nervous, he started in a calm, quiet tone, letting the poem’s words achieve their own impact, but before long he gained confidence and began to sway rhythmically with the music of his poetry, responding to the enthusiasm of the audience, which was transfixed by "Howl’s" powerful imagery. Jack Kerouac, sitting at the edge of the platform, pounded in accompaniment on a wine jug, shouting “GO!” at the end of each long line. The crowd quickly joined him in punctuating Allen’s lines with shouts of encouragement, and Allen, inspired by the intensity of the room, responded with an even greater flourish to his reading. By the time he had concluded, he was in tears, as was Kenneth Rexroth. The audience erupted in appreciation of the work, as if each person in attendance recognized that literary history had been made."

The "angel headed hipster" himself, Allen Ginsberg in 1955.

The work itself has a storied history, being first considered to be obscene by the authorities to becoming a staple of the English curriculum taught in many schools.

Oh, the irony....

Allen Ginsberg's groundbreaking poem was part of the birth of cool, along with the writings of some of the other beats, Kerouac in particular, Musicians like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, the Abstract Expressionist art movement, and individuals that Ginsberg described as "angel headed hipsters"

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

Of course all that energy fed into the counter-cultural movement of the 60s, which was effectively drained, defeated and dissipated by the time of Nixon's reelection in 1972, among a legion of other factors.

What we've seen in recent years has been decline and death of cool.

Hipsters have become the new bougsies, and the corporate marketeers have subverted "cool" and commodified it to death.

Adbusters recently disparages the hipster as the "dead end of western civilization"
"We are a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new."

When you think of that comment and the poem Howl it reveals a dark irony. The culture created by those first "angel headed hipsters" became it's own Monster and together with the everlasting Moloch has created a new wasteland.

In his essay in Howl: Fifty Years Later, Czeslaw Milosz observes "but still the sign of Moloch is everywhere and all of the cities are one city, all the highways are one highway, all the stores are one store, and to travel a thousand miles becomes meaningless, for wherever you may turn come up against the same wall."
From "Visions from San Francisco Bay" (1975):

Where do we go from here?
The answer is in many directions (Millions upon millions) at once.

Traditional cultural forms like Literature and Poetry for all practical purposes are dead. Dead in that they will not be able to shape the culture in ways that the arts have in the past. The audience now is too fractured for any kind of mass influence (with rare notable exceptions).

Culture has been fracturing since the 1980s when traditional cultural models started losing the potential to shape the culture because the linear cultural mainstream itself was dividing. By 1995 myriad sub cultures and sub-subcultures that all operate more or less invisibly under the radar of a stiflingly generic corporate driven mass culture began to emerge. The Internet of course sent this into hyper-drive and today it is the force by which we navigate our lives.

Creative evolution, however, does occur, only now it occurs locally—deep within each sub-culture. Occasionally some of these bubble up an into the wasteland of mainstream culture where, if sustained for any length of time, are quickly absorbed, imitated and subverted into irrelevance. This is the new cultural model from which multiple discursive histories and cultures will emerge and recombine in sometimes exciting and always chaotic ways. In the past we may have one Picasso, or one Ginsberg, now we have the possibility for dozens. The importance and relevance of each primarily centered within their creative community.

The one major shift that has occurred across the board is behavioral.
People who are in their 30s and 40s today don't dress and act and make decisions like people of the same age in 1950. We behave as if we were much younger.

New York Magazine published a great piece on this phenomenon a few years ago,
"Up with Grups" which explains in great detail.

More than ever, there is no time now for all the things that are expected of us, not to mention what ever we may want to do.... the pace of life is so furious that we are exhausted just trying to keep up.
I don't think I am alone in this... I may be 43 but I have ideas and interests that same as when I was 22... and my desire to pursue them has not diminished, only the time and energy I would have available to devote to any of those kinds of things.... pretty much anything beside work and making ends meet.

After years of this it is hard to not become cynical, or give in to some stupid form of self destruction, or to just give up altogether.

I have learned to focus on simple pleasures to keep from getting bitter or giving in to the feeling of futility.
Time with friends, sharing good food, engaging conversations, while chipping away on my own projects in a vacuum of resources and time, Reading classics, studying humanities, politics, economics, and most importantly, making time for my mind to wander....These things are grounding and sustaining.

Time to wander..... this is itself a gravely overlooked virtue.

This may even be the defining line between when I viewed the world as full of possibility, to the more recent view of the world as full of responsibilities that demand the lions share of my time, energy and money....
Time to wander re-energizes the imagination, the soul and spirit....
Possibility = Inspiration/Motivation

For me personally it takes a cold or some illness to disrupt the routine and wipe the calendar for a few days.... time to do nothing.

Doing nothing at times is very important. There is a great Buddhist saying: "stop doing something and just be there!" Doing nothing will eventually wander to other activities... For me, grazing from book to book as my patience allows... dozing, daydreaming, remembering, thinking... sorting out ideas, discovering new ones....
watching movies I have never gotten around to... eating slowly.... listening to the wind, and the quiet.... or to music... lying in the dark or by candle light.... it is magical and restorative.

Moloch is the same as ever. Moloch drains us of life, of energy, of our creativity.

One of the lessons lesson of Howl is that we can sometimes outwit Moloch.

The last line in the poem is one of triumph and possibility, if in a dream:
"in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-
journey on the highway across America in tears
to the door of my cottage in the Western night."

Living and working in total isolation is what drives people mad.

In many ways the Internet is a magic bullet that has opened up new worlds of possibility. Today, we can connect and discover others with similar journeys, we can see our struggle in others, share and validate ideas and experiences and together, if we are lucky, find new ways to save ourselves, and possibly even subvert Moloch.

Most likely, any future catalyst won't be in the form of a poem, or novel, a painting or photographs, but in forms we have yet not seen.

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