Head west across the Delaware. You’ll see
a sign that reads: America Starts Here!
It rambles on to Sacramento, free
and brave, but takes a little detour near
Columbus to avoid Chicago – Ski
the Poconos! and Have Another Beer –
the billboards foliating fore and aft,
and every Huckleberry has his raft.
There’s something very communal, but also cloying, about poetry reading nights. I used to attend a weekly session in Dublin’s The Stag’s Head with quickly scribbled verse, that when I wasn’t on the bad side of the organiser (long story) would win me a free pint of red ale.
If writing for booze doesn’t sum up the college poetry scene that I was involved in, I cannot think of a better description.
I say cloying because much of what was performed in that basement bar area was fairly mediocre, but we all clapped loudly, especially if a newcomer was standing before us for the first time. By the same token the atmosphere was kindly, supportive, I was rarely aware of any competitive bickering and having attended a few book launches for well-known published Irish poets – refreshingly free of affectation.
Rick Mullin’s poem evokes the spirit of an open mic poetry evening, with its cantos divided up between different performers on a stage eulogising the life of Herbert Huncke. We visit the life of the (in)famous Beat poet, meet the famous literary figures and New York artistic scenes that he became swept up in. There are sustained riffs on the work of William Burroughs, an associate of his, as well as a style of writing credited to Thomas Pynchon (a man who enjoys inverting history in eye-popping ways).
In that regard Huncke’s life is used as a model for the influences and historical forces of America itself. The Beat poets raged against and satirised the American Dream. ‘Manifest Destiny’, has escaped the dreamers and they were left at the bottom staring upward. No wonder a paranoaic, conspiratorial tone entered their writings. The firebrand language of Paine, the revolutionary promise of George Washington, abducted and besmirched by the new ruling classes of America. Rick Mullin has the twinned symbols of corruption, Mickey Mouse and Rudy Giuliani, haunt the poem’s cantos, reappearing throughout the life of Huncke himself.
And a kid’s been trailing him all afternoon.
A schoolboy in a Catholic uniform
whose head looks like a carnival balloon
that’s prematurely balding. Not the norm
for even Catholic tikes. Well, pretty soon
the child is offering a light. Reform
school etiquette – the contrasts are uncanny.
“So, what’s your name, kid?” ‘Rudy Giuliani.”
Amusingly he also announces –
And drop the politics, for Jesus sake.
It mixes with the arts the way that rock
gets on with scissors – scissors tends to break.
We skip and jump from War of Independence to America’s jazz era and then forward again briefly to dwell upon a post-9/11 New York, but for the most part no vision of the future is offered. Huncke is absorbed into the canon of American letters, this beatnik junkie become a symbol for an idea of the nation, or perhaps just 42nd Street, that has been lost. Ginsberg and Burroughs are ghosts now too, though Mullin dedicates some verses to memory of Joan Vollmer. Her murder an accident. Burroughs saved from a Mexican jail thanks to family influence. It is worth remembering that these heroes (Mullin rejects the term – ‘There’s a hand we over-play’) were for the most part educated, middle-class and privileged. Their free-form verse often indulged in esoterica, a rebellion not so much against their class, but their elders. Yet today all mysteries can be solved with a trip online –
And so I went. To Wikipedia
to bone up on the luminary thief
and prostitute…whose online media
runs viral with a hypertext relief
that lights full paragraphs.
In a sense Mullin’s poem can be seen as an attempt to restore that mystery, the fugue of names, places and associations intended to pique an interest that can be so dismissively sated by a simple hyperlink. For that he should be commended. He also captures the feel of a poetry performance. To see Mullin’s words be read rather than read them strikes me as the preferable condition to receive them in.
So mission accomplished. I would know more about the man Huncke, as well as look forward to a less biographical work by Mullin himself.
With thanks to Seven Towers Publishers for my copy of this edition.