“Just Out of Reach” Locating a Beat Feminism – Review of Polina Mackay – “Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism” (Routledge, 2022) by Benjamin J. Heal

“In 1946 they were sitting around stoned predicting our future like the guys who wrote the relevations in the Bible. You know, it’s like to me their work is the new Revelations. But there is one thing missing: the girl!”                                         

Patti Smith, Nova Convention, 1978.

It is all too easy to dismiss Beat literature, following the still active narratives that began in the 1950s, labeling youthful adherents of the movement “Beatniks” – thereby equating them with Communist revolutionaries – and presented as stupid, uncouth and faddish. In intellectual circles and the canon of American literature, similar attitudes persist that allow Beat scholarship to be dismissed in just the same way. Even within the pockets of Beat scholarship that remain there are narrow lenses that regard the Beats as essentially three writers, with a scope that included just one gender, and/or one nationality. Books on the female Beats exist, such as Brenda Knight’s Women of the Beat Generation, an American Book Award winner and welcome introduction to the field. It blends critical introductions to a range of writers with key examples of their work. Richard Peabody’s edited collection A Different Beat: Writing’s by Women of the Beat Generation (1997), expands the number of female Beat writers, but does little critically, and contains the most cursory of introductions. More recently the edited collection Out of the Shadows: Beat Women are not Beaten Women (Frida Forsgren & Michael Prince eds. 2015)became the first volume to bring together a rich range of scholarship on “Beat women”, while, ruth weiss: Beat Poetry, Jazz, Art (Estibaliz Encarnation-Pinedo & Thomas Antonic eds. 2021) adopt a multidisciplinary approach, further legitimizing the expanding the research strand of female Beat writers and artists. Yet these texts do not focus on Feminism or examine in depth the feminist credentials of female Beats, likely in order to avoid the elephant in the room, namely the critical charge that the male Beats were largely misogynist, and likely took steps to hamper the publication prospects of their female peers. 

It is vital, then, that texts such as Polina Mackay’s excellent new volume are being published by established academic publishers like Routledge. It is refreshing and surprising to note that this is the first book-length study devoted to reading female Beat figures and writers as feminist, and it usefully takes a generational approach to the three figures regarded by Mackay as most significant to a feminist reading: ruth weiss, Diane di Prima and Anne Waldman. It also, admirably, takes a broader approach both to form and generationality by examining multimedia artist Laurie Anderson and experimentalist provocateur Kathy Acker through the same Beat feminist lens and thereby bringing them firmly into the Beat fold. Broadly dividing the works into three faintly distinct ‘waves’, first those close in age to the original Beat writers (weiss), second those born later but associated with and promoted Beat (di Prima), and lastly female artists and writers who were influenced by and identify with aspects of a “Beat aesthetic”.

Beginning with an attempt to define this “Beat aesthetic”, the discussion succinctly shows how disparate this actually is, with “Beat” itself a variable and contested term. What unites the writers is the importance they place on the processes of recoding language, representation and identity: “they meet in their sense of urgency that this recoding needs to take place. It is this stance that gives the Beats and those who are later influenced by them a distinct identity.” (3). Indeed, it is this admirable sense of scholarship, of giving a specific name to what is under consideration, that gives this volume its critical power. Whereas prior analyses of the Beats have simply allowed uncontested terms to pass undefined or ill-defined, Mackay has given us a long overdue foundation. It allows a comparative collectivity that allows the study scope to consider writers from a wide aegis, giving the female Beats a group strength they have so often been denied. However, it would be wrong to consider the female Beats an entirely unified group, on the contrary, their participation as Beats is often more via shared ethos and outlook rather than a strict adherence to any shared form or style. Beat women did not regularly meet around the Columbia campus, or stay at the same legendary hotels, as Mackay notes, so they failed to see themselves as a group and therefore neither did the predominantly male editors and publishers (such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti) at the time; their absence is less a targeted misogyny on their part and more a consequence of the factors that contributed to their disparateness and perceived absence on the Beat “scene”.

Kicking off with an illuminating discussion of the role of Joan Vollmer Adams in Beat discourse, with her importance as a presence in Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac’s lives largely as a stimulating figure ripe for turning into either copy, or as a figure whose controversial death became an abiding myth and metaphor for the periphery role of women in stimulating and facilitating the future success of the male Beats as writers. This highlights clearly the role of women more generally as absence for the prominent members of the Beat Generation:

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).”(28).

Although her life is written in her absence, her lack of presence in Burroughs’ early novels is telling, with her enigmatic presence as absence underlined in the much-maligned introduction to the 1985 publication of Queer, where Vollmer (and her death) is cited as the catalyst for all Burroughs’ later writing – a feminine presence is therefore extant in these works. The chapter rightly situates a strong female subjectivity in the apparently masculine-focused male Beat narratives of authorial selfhood. It is refreshing too to see a discussion of Terry, the Mexican farm labourer that Sal Paradise profoundly connects with in On the Road; Mackay echoes Luis Martinez’ thesis that paradise ”takes on the persona of the subaltern”, thereby Terry is effectively enabling Kerouac’s multiple narrative identities (28-29).

The first substantive chapter of close analysis, “Narratives of Emergence”,  looks at Di Prima, a female writer whose feminist credentials are not immediately apparent. It begins with a somewhat perplexing analysis of the way di Prima extends and revises Keat’s poetry through Recollections, This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958) and Dinners and Nightmares (1961). To read herself through a specifically male poet seems reductive, why not Mary Shelly, or Anna Laetitia Barbauld to make a clearer feminist statement? Moreover,  di Prima claims a vision of Keats that echoes Ginsberg’s own earlier vision of Blake, further reducing the poet’s female agency by contextualising her work through the lens of two male poets. Yet Mackay sees the similarities between Ginsberg and di Prima’s visions as significant “because they are suggestive of [di Prima’s] understanding of Female Beat authorship.” (34) For Mackay, di Prima “feminizes” Keats, and her vision links her to the “Romantic ethos of a rebellion in spirit and in aesthetics and helps to give equal literary weight to her own artistic project […]which simultaneously builds on and breaks away from the patrilinear literary tradition of the past.” 34-35) Mackay’s close readings show di Prima is both revising and responding to Keats’s verse, in a broadly intertextual process. The discussion closes with mention of di Prima’s mock-pornography Memoirs. Of a Beatnik (1969), which Mackay argues is part of di Prima’s mission to read female subjectivities as “integral part of countercultural discourses that bonded through their shared understanding of cool.”(59). What “cool” constitutes, one feels, is not adequately explored, and neither is di Prima’s innovative use of pornography – a missed opportunity given the later excellent chapter on female Beat engagement with the works of Burroughs.

Weiss, though she would have likely contested the label, appears the most obvious feminist voice in the female Beat canon, particularly through her works such as Gallery of Women (1959). However, the chapter focusing on weiss, “Clarity of Vision through Transformation” (an updated version of the chapter that appears in ruth weiss: Beat Poetry, Jazz, Art) attempts to flesh out a “female Beat poetic consciousness” by reading her Desert Journal (1977) as a work that blends the poetic with the spiritual. What that specifically entails is unfortunately not made particularly vivid, though that does not detract from the vivid close reading of what is arguably weiss’s masterwork, presenting it as a poetic work inextricably linked to Biblical contexts, while also focusing on its use of the desert as poetic symbol. It does the latter by again invoking a male Romantic, this time William Wordsworth. What remains somewhat lacking is the sense with which weiss’s poetics contains a specific feminist vision. The twin notions of the spiritual journey and transformation might have been better articulated with reference to Paul Bowles’ elusively elliptical short travel essay “Baptism of Solitude”, which captures a similar fluidity of language as Desert Journal. But it is the lack of comparative female voices of the desert, such as San Mao, Chinese-born travel writer who documented her experiences in the Sahara, or even more captivating Isabel Eberhardt, the androgynous Swiss born explorer and writer who converted to Islam and settled in Algeria, documenting her experiences in journals and short-stories, that feels lacking in Mackay’s analysis of weiss, who seems in the shadow of the male writers who transcribed the Bible, that later in the book Patti Smith equates with the male Beats.

Di Prima’s Loba (1998), a sophisticated book-length poem that incorporates and inscribes a raft of well-known female historical figures, Mackay contends, serves a dual purpose. It rewrites Ginsberg’s “Howl” from the perspective of female Beat poet, and significantly “integrates the woman’s experience of discontent into the Beat message of anti-conformity”. (99). The close analysis of the poem is detailed, clear and always enlightening, although the “perspective of the female Beat poet” is not defined in a satisfying way, with it (perhaps appropriately) remaining out of our grasp. As Mackay notes, it is not clear what the parameters for the revision of “Howl” are, and “who this newly formed Loba, with the fully recovered memories of the woman’s past, might be affiliated with and where she might be heading.” (99). It is a stunning turn in the book’s narrative of Beat feminist “recovery” to make it clear that even with this later work di Prima is only tentatively stepping into the light as a Beat poet on her own terms, out of the dark shadow cast by her male Beat peers.

The answer to all this darkness appears to be through a more specifically female multimedia experimentation of the second and third waves of female Beats with the key launching event 1978s New York Nova Convention, an event held to celebrate not the Beats but the work of Burroughs. Mackay sees their work as “radical interventions” made in response to the works of Burroughs, a neat and ironic return to the first chapter via the man responsible for creating the ghostly presence of Joan Vollmer Adams. Referencing Burroughs’ provocative (and arguably misogynist) 1978 article for Playgirl, “Women, A Biological Mistake?”, the argument attempts to build a foundation for reading Burroughs as a parodist, and therefore allowing the possibility to see his apparent misogyny as parodic in nature, designed to expose (like his parodic representations of racism and homophobia) the workings of power in language and society. It does not fully achieve this, though such a slight oversight does not distract from the excellent readings of the conference performances, which aided the rise of performance artists such as Anderson, and includes perhaps the clearest and most concise summary of Burroughs’ conceptualization of language to date, where “history is not a collection of facts but a recorded message that can be revised continuously”(104). Kathy Acker was certainly influenced strongly by Burroughs, and evidently twisted his cut-up methodology to fit her punk-radical feminist agenda. Mackay feels Acker is using Burroughs cut-up method to parody and mock him, rather than adopting his methods respectfully; but arguably Acker can be seen to be doing both by holding nothing sacred. In the end, Mackay correctly sees Acker’ project of rewriting male-dominated narratives with female voices as both parodic and pastiche, and also designed to expose “the ways in which the disempowerment of women is achieved in the narratives of patriarchal culture” (119).

The final chapter moves from text to performance to political activism via Anne Waldman’s Fast Speaking Woman (1975, expanded 2nd edition 1996) and Iovis Trilogy (2011). Mackay correctly argues that Beat feminism finally finds its voice in Waldman’s work; appropriate given that of all the writers mentioned so far Waldman maintained the closest links with the male Beats, but also, with a nod to Ginsberg’s “Howl”, in the way she treats literary writing as activism, her “conception of the feminist form in poetry as a speaking out against oppression”. This is born out through the epigraph that begins the chapter, “I wanted the most dynamic, most feminist, most oral/public interventions that include efficacious possibility. I wanted them both on and off the page.” (In the Room Never Grieve). (126). The insightful readings here offer a view on Waldman’s apparent “dissipative” process, of everything being in process, riven by contradiction and seeking equilibrium. By incorporating chanting and being very mindful of the performative qualities of her verse, Mackay sees Waldman involved in a process of feminist cleansing and self-discovery, part of a dialogue between performer and audience. There are strands here that deserve further development, such as Waldman’s engagement with hermaphroditic discourse and ambiguity, which would have benefitted from Roland Barthes’ discussion of the androgyne, as how precisely Waldman’s engagement in this topic aids her feminism is not obvious; and seem to return us to the parodic territory opened up by Burroughs’ question “women, a biological mistake?”

Although this last chapter is satisfying in its own terms, a short concluding statement feels missing, with the chapters hanging together a little too loosely for a text designed to set out a specific set of “aesthetics, literature, gender, activism” through which the reader can discern a “Beat Feminism”, though this goal is clearly not the book’s primary objective. The book is a huge success in terms of its close literary scholarship, offering up unique and thoroughly researched and analyzed readings of these all too often overlooked and yet vital writers. How Beat they actually are is a debate that should and will continue to rage.