the Other Generation of the 50's
By Mel Weisburd
(This article was originally published in The Lummox Journal, May/June 2003)
One evening in October 1956, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso entered a three-story, Tudor brick and stone house on Virginia Road in an old middle-class neighborhood of Los Angeles. Just as he had done in Gallery 6 in San Francisco earlier that year, Ginsberg read Howl, Sunflower Sutra and other poems to a gathering of the local literati. Some were enthusiastic, some ambivalent, some shocked. The reaction of a young man who was probably drunk was clear. His ears heard the whining, shrill voice of an unkempt poet. He interrupted the reading to lambaste Ginsberg for his negativity. The verbal exchange that ensued began to verge on a fist fight, when Ginsberg suddenly challenged the man to take off his clothes instead and then stripped until he was completely naked.
In this manner the Beat Generation was introduced to Los Angeles. Present at this reading were the diarist Anais Nin and Lawrence Lipton, a former pulp fiction writer and founder to be of "Venice-West," each with their own entourage. The reading was sponsored by Coastlines literary magazine which was founded by Gene Frumkin and myself and published from this house which was owned by Barding Dahl, the fiction editor.
Ginsberg was barely known to us at the time, and while his reading was heartfelt, his poetry on first impression did not seem to differ much from the material we were receiving in the mail and publishing. Much of that writing was anti-academic and non-traditional. It protested social conditions, the conservative values of the mainstream, the industrial military complex, the nuclear threat and McCarthyism. While we agreed with the intent, the manner of complaint was becoming repetitious. We were looking for new ways to express these same ideas and feelings, hopefully to a more mainstream audience. In those days we were anxious about the presence of government agents who were in the habit of attending events like ours. If a local undercover cop had been in the crowd, we could easily be cited for indecent exposure or gathering illegally. It also occurred to Frumkin and myself that we had never before seen the stranger who attacked Ginsberg and that he might have been an agent provocateur.
This was, without our being aware, a defining event of the 50's and this reading has since become legend. In fact, the entire year of 1956 was loaded with defining events. Earlier, we accepted an article by Lipton entitled "American’s Literary Underground." It called for 'disaffiliation' from job, political loyalty and middle class mores, the assumption of 'voluntary poverty' and denial of the "Social Lie" (the lie of the assumed social contract in which the government gives more to the people than the people to the government). Then we met Lipton at the New School of Art in Los Angeles where we sponsored a poetry reading of the works of Bert Meyers, Tom McGrath and Lipton. Afterwards, Lipton proposed that Coastlines become a vehicle for the ‘new writing,’ under his tutelage. According to him, writers can be true only if they shun ‘the thickening centers of corruption.’
Because we didn't want to emphasize one group of writers over another, we turned him
down. We argued that his notions were unrealistic and inappropriate for Los Angeles. In addition to the damage done by McCarthyism to the educational and cultural assets of Southern California --the film and entertainment industries and education -- Los Angeles was a socially desolate, repressed city, a city where single people of the 50's were often isolated. They were seeking attachment, not disaffiliation. Besides, art was an existential affair and all experience was valid. Right under our noses, a number of the world's greatest writers were working for the movie industry. ‘Thickening corruption’ was the theme of the novels written as a byproduct of the experiences of such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Budd Schulberg, Howard Fast, Aldous Huxley, Malcolm Lowry. Many of the movies they wrote reflected this complex mood of complicity and involvement, particularly in the film noir of the time. In fact, the novelists working as screen writers within the studio system called themselves insiders, meaning their novels could not have been written in such a socially relevant manner had they been disaffiliated to the side lines.
Also some of us had concerns more germane to Southern California than to San Francisco, such as the local, but immense military-industrial complex with its ‘think tanks’ which created a C.P. Snow type of two-culture conflict in many intellectuals (as represented by the writings of Curtis Zahn in the magazine), the nuclear threat, the alienation and dispersal of the 'The Non-Existent City,' and, of course, the unique symbol of this all, smog.
Coastlines was the name Frumkin and I gave the magazine in 1955. Ocean waves rebounding from the coasts of California suggested to us lines of poetry, while the long coastline symbolized the continuing tradition of literature with its many variations in the forms of jagged indentations, coves and peninsulas. We also saw it as a boundary between the awareness of the land and of the unconscious in terms of the immense ocean. Since the earth’s surface is mostly comprised of water, the planet itself is mostly subsurface and unconscious, to be mined and farmed by poetry.
As the first editor of Coastlines, my opening editorial sought simply to ‘discover the source of writing in Los Angeles.’ That was meant to be more than rhetoric; it initiated the search for writers in a vast, urban wilderness. The second intent was to ‘fully exercise the right of free speech’ which was more than cliche, since many social themes and avenues of literary exploration were shut down by McCarthyism. We saw ourselves as partisans daring to publish any material of merit, regardless of content. To make that point, we dedicated the first issue to the passionate and socially aware poet Edwin Rolfe, who happened to have been a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and who had died then.
In retrospect, a coastliner was one associated with the writers and editors of the magazine and who were originally brought together by the poet and teacher Thomas McGrath. Like the beats and Lipton’s barbarians coastliners were in the process of transition from the literary traditions of the 30's and 40's to something different. Ginsberg, for example, transformed his political orientation to a point ever as agitated as the 30's, but essentially without direction; Lipton renounced his world of the radical left of the Chicago 30's. The coastliners hoped to presage a freer and more creative left to come. They sought to re-assert a poetry relevant to the larger society and pursued socially conscious themes, but treated in an individual and personal manner. They often used the devices of surrealism and were receptive to Zen and other influences. They only differed from the writers at Venice West in that their creativity was not contingent on a life style.
Through McGrath, the coastliners consciously assimilated the influences of Hart Crane,
Berthold Brecht, William Butler Yeats, Andre Breton and Rainer Maria Rilke – and something called a poetry wheel which through its randomness taught the element of surprise in language and surrealism. Thus, our central concern was above all the craft of poetry geared to the socio-political concerns of the 50's.
Another important defining element was the introduction of mescaline and LSD (acid) in the mid-fifties. Contrary to accepted history, first exposures were by non-beats for whom Aldous Huxley remained the archetype, not the Timothy Leary to come. In Los Angeles, the psychiatrist Dr. Oscar Janiger administered some 3,000 doses of LSD to 1,000 volunteers from 1954 to 1962. I was the first in our group to be given LSD, followed by Gene Frumkin and Alvaro Cardona-Hine.
Most importantly, the effects extended beyond the immediate; they tended to persist in some form, if only in re-activatable memories, across the life span of the individual. Frumkin grew in the direction of a poetry that is a hybrid of realistic narrative and ‘language poetry’ (language in itself as an entity). He regards ‘poetry-thought’ as occurring beyond ordinary cognition, which can be construed to be something like an expression of linguistic substrate in the sense of Chomsky’s ‘deep structures.’ Alvaro Cardona-Hine in his acid trip reported that the "five senses have taken off in different directions and are bringing back reports of their wonderful discoveries." 1 Thereafter he grew as a multi-media artist: poet, composer, novelist, painter.
The ingestion of acid altered consciousness in many creative artists in highly individual ways. When positive (many were bad), "the experience" had the tendency to nullify categories, reconcile contradictions and unify disparate concepts, rendering Beat v. Square meaningless.
After LSD was banned in 1962 it was impossible to study the long-term effects, but I believe the total recall I’ve had of the minute details of this experience 44 years later is a major sign of it--like a single, powerful religious or other peak experience can permanently alter certain aspects of consciousness and perception. For me, it appeared to facilitate (1) non-linear, multi-dimensional perception and (2) reflexive perceptions of one’s own brain states. One of the immediate effects of my experience was a feeling of omnipotence -- that I could cross professional and occupational lines with the surprising result that I emerged as an inter-multi-disciplinarian. Paradoxically, I believe the experience empowered me in my life-long career in the field of environmental protection to the extent that I founded and ran an environmental engineering company for some 15 years, perhaps the only English Major to have ever have done so. On retirement I began writing a novel based on ecphory, the retrieval of systematically stimulated memories.
The experience not only inspired poems, novels and paintings but also impacted popular culture.2 These changes produced profound and widespread effects both directly and indirectly in succeeding decades, not only on artists, but professions and vocations and society as a whole, often in extremely subtle ways, amounting to a silent revolution. The effects span the spectrum from the most extreme affecting, personal states of consciousness in poetry and art on one end to the most detached, objective point of view in science and technology on the other. Objectivity alone perceives forms at different scales of realities which evoke aesthetic pleasure in themselves. Scientific detachment sometimes can became analogous to the notion of the sound of one hand clapping.
In my view, the 50's was the most ideal period in history for such drug experiences because they were taken by relatively few, mostly for the purpose to experience higher levels of creativity. By the end of the 60's and up until the present day hard drugs began to be used on an epidemic scale for escape, sensation and ultimately out of addiction, with dire results.
While the beat movement in Lipton’s Venice West was very short lived, often with tragic results, looking back, it is clear that the contribution of the beats to the culture and lifestyles of the U.S. and much of the world continues to reverberate through the generations of the hippies, flower children, street people, punk, yuppies, in the rock and roll/ rap/ slam/ performance/ spoken word performances we see today and in the continuing interest in the poets and writers of that time, especially Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Di Prima and Burroughs.
The greatest contribution of the beats was in liberating many human latencies in life-style, language and sexual mores that had been repressed by social and political taboos. They broke the pervasive hold of the new criticism and ended the idolatry of T.S. Eliot. But at the same time they also contributed, although inadvertently, to the loss of an organized, effective political left in this country implicit in the creed of disaffiliation codified by Lipton in 1959.
The Coastliners on the other hand never lost their left orientation, but also never comprised a distinctive school of poetry with a set program. They worked as individuals refining their art down the decades. Many of them are still alive and writing on their own resources. Others like the poetry of Bert Meyers and Naomi Replansky are being rediscovered today. Perhaps the pendulum has swung, and given the times, similar perspectives that radiate to social concerns can be seen and new voices heard.
1. Alvaro Cardona Hine, "The Lysergic Acid Diethylamide Experience," (date and publication unknown.)
2. David Ebin (ed.), The Drug Experience, "2. A Symposium", Ronald A.
Sandison, p. 378, The Orion Press, N.Y., 1961. -- "The introduction of LSD ... has transformed the entire hospital, because the whole atmosphere engendered by LSD has spread throughout the hospital and, in fact, forms an essential part of the hospital culture. If LSD is given in a large institutional setting, treatment will be ineffective unless this transformation has occurred."
Mr. Weisburd is completing a book-length memoir on the Coastliners and other major events that took place in the 50's that have never been published before and a chap book of narrative and lyrical poems on the long term effects of acid over a 50-year period. He is currently seeking a publisher for these and other works.