Culture & Criticism Since 2003
In April 2010, Nancy J. Peters, co-owner and publisher of City Lights Booksellers and Publishers, was presented with the Fred Cody Award for lifetime achievement as part of the 29th Annual Northern California Book Awards. The Cody Award recognizes on-going dedication to northern California’s rich literary community – a community that Peters has fed and nurtured since the day she and City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti launched their legendary collaboration in 1971. Known for her deft editing and poetic eye, Peters has been instrumental in helping City Lights hold its place as the beacon illuminating the concept of the small press.
Al Young, former Poet Laureate of California (he served from May 2005 through September 2008), toured many small-town-outposts in rural California in the Spring of 2007, spreading the message that poetry lives in the tiny moments of every life. Young’s work is known for its lyricism and depth as he seeks to connect new generations to the beauty of language and perception. In turn, the reviews of the books that follow serve to illuminate the life-work of every poet committed to preserving words on paper in golden tongues of blood.
In the 8th installment of the new City Lights Poetry Spotlight, we are introduced to the vibrant voice of Catherine Wagner. Nervous Device, inspired by William Blake, is a compelling collection of poems that twists the abstract echoes of language into the full-body of a deep and hopeful vision. Here, Wagner looks to propel the poem across the audience, drawing it from the confines of the printed page into the clearness of space where its multitude of perspectives can be sampled by the masses. Ultimately, Wagner’s poetry is about performance and sound and the way that things move. Jumping through scenes like a new-born fawn, she blends her airy-cool ethereal style with this sharp set of eyes – a wholly original poet roaming a tired and broken countryside. And she writes:
“Color, says Albers,
Is absolutely contextual.
So why do I like to be alone?
What color are you
Where context changes color to accord
That’s the end
Of the war…”
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Back in 1960, Timothy Leary had very much a mainstream persona – an esteemed professor with an introspective mind searching for a way to explore the new Bohemia and broaden the reach of the “Psilocybin Project” he had conducted at Harvard.
In turn, Allen Ginsberg was very much an outlaw figure: Having fought through the tepid censorship of 1950s America, Ginsberg’s epic poem “Howl” had become the centerpiece of the Beat Generation’s message to the world.
Moreover, Ginsberg had just returned to the States from Mexico after his first taste of magic mushrooms – suddenly excited to share what he’d learned about the vast spiritual possibilities these mystical hallucinogenics held.
White Hand Society, by Peter Conners, serves to chronicle the first meetings between Ginsberg and Leary as they planted the seeds for the psychedelic revolution that would help define the 1960s.
In sum, White Hand writes the record of how Leary and Ginsberg came together, bonded by the overwhelming need to enlighten the darkened edges of the universe. Basically, Ginsberg saw himself as a descendant and disciple of poet William Blake, believing that he had an obligation to expand the consciousness of the world via the complete surrender of heart, mind, soul and eye.
Although Ginsberg was an established writer known for brains and bravado, this particular assignment was too big for him to handle alone; in simple terms, he needed a ‘partner in crime’ to support his mission to renew a static and stagnate culture.
And Conners writes:
“As Allen saw it, the solution was sitting right across the table from him: Dr. Timothy Leary. Or, more important, everything that Timothy Leary represented. Leary was an ivy-league academic, a certified PhD., a well-respected psychologist, a clean-cut unknown with – and here was the kicker – access to mass quantities of Psilocybin. On the other hand, Ginsberg was a known Beatnik poet with a history of drug use and mental illness. He wasn’t just famous, he was infamous. American culture had already punched his ticket. As Ginsberg put it, ‘I’m too easy to put down.’ No, what they needed to give hallucinogens a shot at safe passage into mainstream America was a respectable front. ‘Big serious scientist professors from Harvard.’ ”
Even though Ginsberg’s views on drugs would eventually be tempered with age, he never lost sight of his ultimate mission – that being, to engage the mind of the world and release it from its inherited shackles.
White Hand is notable for both the tremendous amount of new information it provides and they way that it’s presented. Conners not only tells us the whens and whys but he does so by-way of a seamless narrative that puts history into relevant perspective. Obviously, Conners instinctively understands the sensibilities of both Leary and Ginsberg and he writes from the ‘inside,’ giving a voice to the secret details of a movement that would come to influence the course of every art form.
White Hand Society is a major addition to the canon of Beat literature – honest and raw, it documents the Ginsberg-Leary project with sweet insight and depth.
In essence, this book reminds us that poetry is about an intimate exploration of the mind and its many eyes. In turn, exploration is about risk and sacrifice and the ability to forge a path through an over-grown jungle.
In White Hand Society, Conners brings us back 50 years in time, taking us back to the very day Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary joined hands to take a series of steps into the unknown together.
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