Kora in Hell

William Carlos Williams. Kora in Hell.
Boston: Four Seas Company, 1920
Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature

TRAINED AS A a doctor, William Carlos Williams maintained a medical practice throughout his life, while also writing poetry that would influence a generation of younger poets. Williams' first poetic loves were John Keats and Walt Whitman. He writes, "I reserve my 'Whitmanesque' thoughts, a sort of purgation and confessional, to clear my head and heart from turgid obsessions." It was his meeting Ezra Pound and other Imagist poets such as H.D, however, that inspired him to try experimental forms of poetry. Williams was always a promoter of the avant-garde and later in life became a mentor to several of the Beat poets. Allen Ginsberg first wrote Williams (they were both from around Paterson, New Jersey), in 1950, after hearing him read at the Guggenheim Museum. Williams was so impressed with the letter that he included parts of it in his long poem, 'Paterson' and began to counsel the younger poet. He pointed out that Ginsberg's letters contained better poetry than his poems, and Ginsberg went back through his voluminous journals extracting poetical passages and forming from them many new poems. This exercise became the basis for the poetry that eventually made Ginsberg famous. When Ginsberg finally made the acquaintance of the San Francisco poets, he was not surprised to find that Williams was a favorite among many of them. 

The Pisan Cantos

Ezra Pound. The Pisan Cantos.
New York: New Directions, 1948.
Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature

THE PISAN CANTOS were written during Pound's incarceration in a prison camp near Pisa following his World War II collaboration with Mussolini's fascist regime. Their publication in 1948 coincided with the developing Beat aesthetic, and these poems were esteemed by Allen Ginsberg and others. Mainstream critics were appalled that a war criminal was held in such regard by the younger generation, making the Pisan Cantos all the more popular. In 1967 Ginsberg arrived in Sant'Ambrogio, Italy, to pay homage to Pound. After performing Hari Krishna chants on the sidewalk, Ginsberg and friends were invited inside where Ginsberg told Pound, "you have shown us the way. The more I read your poetry, the more I am convinced it is the best of its time." There is much evidence to suggest that Ginsberg, in many ways, modeled his life after Pound's­. Both were tireless promoters of their friends' creative works, both brought attention to new unknown talent, both worked hard to remain in the public eye, and both did much to form a sense of community among hitherto disparate groups of artists.

The Bridge by Hart Crane

Hart Crane. The Bridge.
New York: Horace Liveright, 1930.
Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature

THE POETRY OF Hart Crane appeared on many of the Beats' reading shelves, including Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and William Evans. His work was a poetic bridge between the nineteenth century and the twentieth, taking inspiration from Whitman and Emerson, and exerting great influence on the Beats, who thought of him as a modern Walt Whitman. He attempted, like Whitman, to capture the entire American experience in one book of poetry, and The Bridge is often thought of as a twentieth century 'Song of Myself.' Indeed one of the poems in The Bridge, 'Cape Hatteras,' is written to Whitman and concludes, "My hand in yours, Walt Whitman, ­so­." Crane, who suffered from alcoholism and depression, committed suicide in 1932 by jumping from a ship in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tropic of Cancer

Henry Miller. Tropic of Cancer.
Paris: Obelisk Press, 1934.
Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature

TROPIC OF CANCER was published by Jack Kahane in 1934, and the book was summarily banned in Great Britain and the United States. This infamous ban was not lifted until the culmination of a protracted legal battle initiated by Barney Rossett and his Grove Press to publish the book in 1962. Miller left New York in the twenties to become a writer in Paris, and Tropic of Cancer is the account of his life as a struggling artist. The novel's graphic depiction of sex and its use of crude language was too much for the censors, but Tropic of Cancer was smuggled into the United States where it gained great notoriety. In a 1962 ruling that initiated changes in the laws of literary and artistic censorship, Judge Samuel B. Epstein found that Tropic of Cancer was not obscene. The legal battle for William Burroughs' Naked Lunch was soon to follow.

The Journal of Albion Moonlight

Kenneth Patchen. The Journal of Albion Moonlight.
Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Walpole Printing Office, 1941.
Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature 

KENNETH PATCHEN'S EXPERIMENTAL verse and his fiction, with its proletarian themes, had a major influence on the early Beat aesthetic. Patchen was never highly regarded among mainstream critics, but it was the offbeat, censored, experimental writers, musicians, and artists that most interested the Beats. According to Kenneth Rexroth, Patchen was the most popular poet on American college campuses during World War II. In the fifties he performed a series of poetry readings accompanied by an avant-garde jazz band, performances that were well attended by the Beat crowd. His early anti-war stance, written in response to the atrocities of World War II, was embraced by the Vietnam war protesters in the late sixties.

The Sheltering Sky

Paul Bowles. The Sheltering Sky.
New York: New Directions, 1949.
Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature

AT THE SUGGESTION of Gertrude Stein, Paul Bowles, a successful composer of theatrical music on Broadway, moved to Morocco to remove himself from the stifling influences of Western culture. The Sheltering Sky was his first attempt at novel writing, and though the editors of Doubleday rejected the commissioned manuscript for being too "existential," New Directions published it to great critical reviews. Bowles called the novel "an adventure story, in which the actual adventures take place on two planes simultaneously: in the actual desert, and in the inner desert of the spirit." William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac all admired the novel, and Burroughs, seeking a place to live after the death of his wife in Mexico, moved to Morocco, hoping to meet Paul and Jane Bowles, and to find a culture that would be more amenable to his unorthodox appetites. Eventually Burroughs succeeded in meeting the famous author, and when Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Orlovsky came to visit, they joined Paul and Jane Bowles on several excursions.