Peter Orlovsky, a Life in Words: Intimate Chronicles of a Beat Writer by Peter Orlovsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This collection of poems, letters and journals entries with a few random photos thrown in was not what I expected it to be. That leaves me disappointed, but the fault is mine. Bill Morgan is an archivist and this is nothing if not an archive. It’s just not much more than that.
Peter Orlovsky, as Allen Ginsberg’s companion and lover for over 40 years, was in the thick of the Beat Movement and chronicling his experiences in his journal for much of it. Through his eyes and voice, the travels and musings of many key figures in the movement are witnessed extensively: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, and Neal Cassady. As Ann Charters notes in the Foreward, “For literary historians, Peter’s account of his daily life with Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, and Burroughs is probably the most detailed we will ever have.” Also seen are a lot of drugs, sex and jazz/rock-n-roll/punk. These are the key figures and key subjects that the movement is known for. In a more conservative time, the beats pushed the envelope and were open and experimental with their drugs and their sexuality both in words and action:
[excerpt from a Nov. 03, 1958 letter from Peter Orlovsky to Gregory Corso] ” . . . Jack [Kerouac] has been banging us [Orlovsky and Ginsberg] for being queers–especially when he’s drunk–so I, when Jack comes on like this, go after Jack with outpouring of love and raping him with words. . . . A few days ago . . . [Bach] was playing and such beautiful music that we all danced to it and it was so beautiful I started to blow Allen and Jack [was] sitting there–Allen was so scared and shy in front of Jack that he wanted to go into the other room, but I wanted to blow Allen while he danced to beautiful music, so angel magical it sounded–I’m tired of being afraid of Jack and shying my words up . . . “
Undoubtedly, for those interested in the lives of the Beats, this scrap book of letters and journals will satisfy. It also gives almost equal time to Peter’s letters and journals to and about his family which proved to be illuminating. The book starts with Peter at 21, months before meeting Allen. He’s been discharged from the army as psychologically unfit citing “schizophrenia, paranoid.” His parents have split while each spending time in psychiatric hospitals. Eventually, Peter and all four siblings of his will spend time in psychiatric hospitals. Terms such as frontal lobotomy and electroshock therapy get thrown around. Needless to say, Peter is not exactly stable before he starts to experiment with, use and abuse drugs.
I was disappointed, however, because I wanted to see the letters and poetry contextualized. I did not want this book to be a companion. We see the letters that Peter wrote, but none of the replies, nothing written to him. I don’t want to have to look up the letters to Peter to fill in the conversations. This was especially true of the poetry. I wanted to see the poetics at work. The Beats changed the game with poetry; they broke and re-wrote the rules. Peter was there when Allen wrote and read Howl for the first time. Peter also later lectured on poetry. But, no copies of a single lecture are included. What he had to say on the subject of poetics is conspicuously missing. Charters wrote that Peter inspired Beat writers with his “emotionally naked, loopy, and occasionally luminescent poetry,” while Morgan wrote that Peter “failed to realize that each of those writers had been influenced by knowing Peter and witnessing his free-spirited way of approaching life.” Not one example of another writer citing Orlovsky’s poetry or stylings is included. Morgan also tells the reader that Orlovsky’s handwriting was atrocious and spelling horrendous, leading to much re-editing [and guessing] on his part to create readable text. I think a single image of an Orlovsky original would make that point. But none are included. Finally, in a note on a journal entry deemed a prose-poem, Morgan says that the entry was later turned into verse and then back into a prose-poem. I would have appreciated the inclusion of those later iterations, but they too are not included.
This book does exactly what it sets out to do: be a scrapbook for Orlovsky’s journals and letters. It does not do what I had hoped, but I may not be the target audience. My Master’s is in Creative Writing Poetry, so I am interested in the poetics, the philosophy, the lectures and the process. In particular, my undergraduate thesis was on the “transformations of American poetics” coming out of WWII. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was my main case study. I was not interested in drug-fueled three-ways . . . but that is what this book has to offer. I received an uncorrected first proof of this book and a nice letter from Paradigm Publishers through Goodreads. Hopefully, that did not taint my view.
[Check out my other reviews here.]