Polina Mackay: Beat Feminisms

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

The ever-expanding field of Beat studies extends our knowledge and understanding of writers within the Beat Generation movement. I have previously reviewed the Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature here. Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism, a new book from Beat scholar Dr Polina Mackay (University of Nicosia) in the Routledge Transnational Perspectives on American Literature series, examines the role played by women within the Beat Movement. Mackay adopts a division of women which splits up them into waves. Firstly, are the women  (born in the 1910s and 1920s) close to the original generation of Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; secondly, those born in the 1930s who joined (or were associated with the Beats as they reached a public stage; and thirdly, those who were born in the 1930s and were inspired by the Beats but not necessarily personally close to the original Beat Generation. Mackay takes one female writer from each wave and examines them in detail in relation to feminist ideas and practice.

Mackay starts by acknowledging that participation in the Beat Movement – certainly for those individuals not personally connected to original members – was a matter of affinity and allegiance rather than one of conformity of style, theme or content. As Mackay notes, many of the Beat women were isolated from one another, some not meeting until the 1990s. Whether such seclusion was primarily driven by external or internal factors (or both), the point is that male editors and publishers were being exposed to female Beat writings less often and it is therefore unsurprising that little of that material was reaching publication in the 1950s-1980s period. The female absence (in terms of early-era publishing) that could be attributed to male hostility could just as easily be assigned to lack of access to material, no doubt exacerbated by ignorance and indifference. Seeing hostility towards women and absence of interest in women writers as equivalent would be an unhelpful conflation.

There is a thoughtful discussion of the literary place of Joan Vollmer Adams’s death at the hands of her husband William Burroughs in Mexico City. Burroughs, drunk, accidentally shot his wife with his pistol during a game at a party. Mackay outlines the various treatments of the incident. These include a few references in Burroughs’s writings and interviews (he did not present a fictionalised version in his novels), those written by associates and the writings of later authors. It is true but not informative to state that Vollmer’s life is written in her absence, as this is always the case when a subject does not leave any substantial written legacy. The author analyses how Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac used their memories and fantasies regarding Vollmer’s life and death in their writings. Mackay concludes, “A common thread in Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac is the intertwining of female presence in Beat textuality with autobiographical discourses, such as the development of the writer as a process of freeing from the biographical past (Burroughs), the conflation of poetic topic and the author’s poetic self-consciousness (Ginsberg), or the reconstruction of the past in writerly terms (Kerouac).”[i]

The core of the book is a discussion of Diane di Prima, Ruth Weiss and Anne Waldman as key women writers within the Beat movement, whose work exemplifies issues highlighted as feminist and female-specific within literature of the time. In her book Recollections of my Life as a Woman (2001), Diane di Prima wrote of her relationship to the poetry and letters of John Keats, seeing her work as a writer in relation to the ground-breaking output of the Romantic poet. Mackay draws the obvious parallel between di Prima’s inspiration from Keats with the famous incident when Ginsberg had a vision of William Blake, in 1948. Mackay analyses di Prima’s poetics in Recollections and This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958) and Dinners and Nightmares (1961) in terms of a response, extension and revision of Keats’s verse, writing both about him and through him, in a process of intertextuality. “Di Prima’s repurposing of Keatsian poetics [accentuates] Keatsian-like contemplative pieces with the Beat vernacular not only modernizes the meditative poem as a genre but also brings into it a new discourse created by the unique time and space of the work’s production, which was the New York countercultural scene of the 1950s.”[ii]

Ruth Weiss’s Desert Journal (1977) represents two Biblical narratives – of the journeys through the wilderness by Moses and Christ – in a book of 40 poems, symbolising the traditional length of the journeys of 40 days and 40 nights. A reinterpretation of theological stories provided Weiss with a space to explore her journey of spiritual self-understanding. The use of English, German and Hebrew adds to the multi-level sequence, which mirrors the double narrative of the journeys through the wilderness made by the fathers of two religions.

Diane di Prima’s Loba (1998) is a later book, which Mackay uses as a starting point for a discussion of de Prima’s knowledge of early Modernist verse and her responses to mid-century writers, such as Black Mountain poet Charles Olson. This complex book-length poem includes a cast of well-known women from history and, according to critics, contains contradictory attitudes that put forth a complex idea of femininity, not one wholly laudatory. Mackay’s chapter indicates how dense the levels of mythology are in Loba and, more than the other chapters, makes one wish to read the original.

There is a chapter on female performances at Nova Convention in November-December 1978, New York, held to celebrate the work of William Burroughs. These included Laurie Anderson, Julia Heyward, Patti Smith and Anne Waldman. The event marked a widespread acknowledgement of the influence of the Beats on the New Wave and punk movements and advanced a younger generation of creators to be seen as peers of Burroughs and Ginsberg. The performance of Anderson was a key step from being a performance artist known only to afficionados of the New York art scene of the 1970s to a widely known musician and storyteller, world famous by the 1980s. Tangentially related are Kathy Acker’s cut-ups (as found in her novel Don Quixote (1986)), which were expressly parodic in character and considerably less respectful toward Burroughs than were Anderson and Waldman’s performances.

Waldman’s poetry is considered as a form of activism, mainly through the light of her collection Fast Speaking Woman (1975, expanded 2nd edition 1996) and Iovis Trilogy (2011). Aside from generalised statements in support of women lacking power, Waldman makes explicit statements against war. She has been an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Waldman’s Iovis Trilogy is a 1,000-page long Post-Modern, post-Beat “cultural intervention into public space”. Although this book is held up as a “clear link between writing as a woman and being an activist against various forms of oppression”[iii], this argument seems slightly light here. At least, we could do with more concrete examples that display how Waldman enacts activism through text, as opposed to simply displaying socio-political engagement. Is Waldman’s activism more explicit or direct here? Are there some distinct literary devices that support Mackay’s thesis or is it simply the prominence and urgency of Waldman’s politics that make Iovis Trilogy a landmark work?

The avoidance of jargon and clarity of argument makes Beat Feminisms a pleasing read, in a field that can become opaque with theory and advocacy. Mackay’s book will prompt renewed consideration of the way prominent female Beats have viewed themselves as writers and is recommended for students of the Beat Generation and the wider movement, as well as for those researching feminist literature.

Polina Mackay, Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism, Routledge, hardback, 172pp + xiv, £120, ISBN 978 0 415 8927 1 1

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