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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.

Under our present denomination of British subjects we can neither be received nor heard abroad: The custom of all courts is against us, and will be so, until, by an independence, we take rank with other nations.

There was a great moment in The Last Days of Newgate by Andrew Pepper when a moral philosopher complains that the city of Belfast used to be filled with people who ‘read Paine and Franklin as avidly as they did Knox and Calvin.’ This inspired me to hunt down Thomas Paine, as I had not read anything by him previously. His pamphlet on Common Sense defined in ideological terms the independent state of America. Its wording can be seen in everything from the idealistic dialogue of characters in Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing to the signs of Tea-Party protesters. Paine’s writing underpins the conceptual core of America and so means many different things to this nation of many races, religions and cultures.

Common Sense is a classic piece of Enlightenment rhetoric. Following the credo of rationalism above blind faith, Paine first outlines argumentation against the very idea of a king, or monarchy in order to lead into his critique of the British Empire. To this end he first focuses on our inherited understanding of a king, citing Biblical text regard the disjunct between the much-called for ‘King of the Jews’, and the dominion of God Almighty.

Following from his reading of the text, he argues that any self-appointed ruler acts against the authority of God. By claiming territory on Earth, that king rejects the role of God as creator of everything upon the Earth. Interestingly Paine does not treat of the Messiah, Christ Jesus, himself. He also alludes to the practice in ‘Popish countries’, to forbid the reading of the Bible for fear of encouraging, in his view, anti-monarchist thought.

It follows on from this that America, as a much larger continent, is beyond the ability of Europe to rule. Firstly, he argues, accepting British rule exposes the Americas to whatever conflicts should occur between the closely seated neighbouring European regimes. Secondly Americans have no recourse to their ruler, the British king, whose legitimacy as a ruler Paine questions. There is an apt assessment of monarchs introduced, that in taking the throne a king is immediately raised above all other people, yet when called upon to rule, the king is expected to have some knowledge, or experience of the issues that affect his subjects.

Finally though, and here Paine’s rhetoric gives way to facts and figures, America is simply too big to be dominated by an island separated from it by an entire ocean. The continent has the means to be almost entirely self-sufficient. Whatever imports are required can easily be afforded by sale of its natural resources. Paine even introduces in later editions of the original pamphlet a table illustrating a cost analysis of British rule.

It is this upfront assessment of the material benefits of American Independence that impresses the most. In fact my edition includes a shorter work by Paine, Agrarian Justice, which outlines his views on the creation of a national pension service. The business of civilization, in Paine’s view, is to care for the lives of citizens. He self-identifies as a pragmatic humanist, urging a violent break from Britain in order to facilitate a truly equitable state.

Of course even he admits that while the cause may be just, citizens of such a future America might slide back into the oppressive behaviours of their one-time rulers. At every stage of Paine’s argument there remains an essential questioning. It is this aspect of Common Sense that I find most appealing, as it acts as a check on those who would take the blood and fire revolutionary rhetoric to justify present-day acts of terrorism against elected US officials.

Paine himself of course received little of the post-humous acclaim he unquestioningly has today while he was still alive. The double-edge sword of his rational argumentation made him quite unpopular among the newly emerging American upper class. This is a great shame, as Common Sense is far too practical in its view of political duplicity to be written off as another basket-case utopia.

A classic Enlightenment text, as relevant today as when it was first read.

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