Monday, March 29, 2010

John Lennon recites Kerouac, and more on Walt Whitman and the Beats

Dr. John Lennon, Assistant Professor of English at St. Francis College, Brooklyn, reads the 241st Chorus of Jack Kerouac's Mexico City Blues in Greenwich Village on March 28, 2010. Across the street is the former site of Cafe Bohemia, a jazz club where Kerouac, among many other luminaries, was a frequent customer.

The story of how Charlie Parker, subject of the 241st Chorus, made Cafe Bohemia a successful jazz spot despite never playing there, is told here.

John's performance marked the close of a two day conference on the topic "Walt Whitman and the Beats", presented by St. Francis College. The first day included eight panel discussions among which twenty four scholars presented papers on topics relevant to both the poetry of Whitman and the literature of the Beats a century later. The keynote address was given by noted Beat Generation scholar Ann Charters, who built her talk around Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California", a part of which is:
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking
among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

The following day there were two walking tours. The first was of "Whitman's Brooklyn", of which, unfortunately, little physical evidence remains. The tour was led by Greg Trupiano, Artistic Director of The Walt Whitman Project, shown in the photo above standing next to Whitman Close, the townhouse development that replaced the building that housed the Rome brothers' print shop, where Whitman labored over typesetting to produce the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Greg is holding up a booklet about the print shop. Photos of this area before it was leveled to provide space for the townhouses and adjacent high rises are here; as you scroll down through the photos, beginning with the fourth photo you will find a building with a red sign on which is "restaurant" in white letters. This was the building that housed the Rome print shop.

Following the Whitman tour, your correspondent and others took the subway to Manhattan to explore landmarks of Beat Generation history in Greenwich Village. Fortunately, thanks in part to the efforts of Jane Jacobs, many of these have survived, although in some instances in different guises.

We gathered next to the Minetta Tavern, where William S. Burroughs would treat his less affluent friends, Ginsberg and Kerouac, to dinner.

One Beat landmark rendered unrecognizable is Fugazzi's, now remade into "Kudo Beans", partly obscured in the photo above by the marquee of the International Film Center. It was immortalized in Ginsberg's Howl:
...who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford's floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi's, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox...

This is the door to the brownstone house in which the poet, playwright and political activist Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones, lived for a time in the 1950s. Standing next to the door is Fiona Anderson, of Kings College London, who, the previous day, read her paper "A trail of drift and debris: Traces of Whitman in the correspondence art of Ray Johnson", and thereby introduced me to an artist associated with the Beats with whom I was previously unfamiliar (see clip below).

The tour concluded with Dr. Lennon's reading of the 241st Chorus of Mexico City Blues, but at the beginning (unfortunately, he was well into it before I had the sense to think of video) Dr. Thomas Bierowski, Assistant Professor of English at Alvernia University, treated us to a recitation of the 228th Chorus, which concludes:
Praised be the embrace of soft sleep
--the valor of angels in valleys
of hell on earth below--
Praised be the Non ending--
Praised be the lights of earth-man--
Praised be the watchers--
Praised be my fellow man
For dwelling in milk