Puritan Pilgrims who founded America, Peter Orlovsky might appear
to be the beast from the Bible, but Orlovsky is a pilgrim in his own
right, if we begin with the premise that the body is as important
as spirit, and that the body is a new world waiting to be discovered.
Allen Ginsberg's boyfriend for several decades, Orlovsky's one volume
of verse, published in the late 1970s, is a hymn to a kind of physical
life which was glorified and exemplified by the hippies, and perhaps
taken to its highest poetic incarnation in the work of Orlovsky.
In Allen Ginsberg's short book,
Your Reason and Blake's System, he argues that Blake separated the
world into four categories. "The division of Blake's final system
is relatively simple. There's the body, Tharmas; there's emotion
in the body, Luvah; there's imagination, Urthona; and there's reason,
Urizen. Blake's basic conception is that if any single one of
them 'takes over,' like Urizen (which he thought was characteristic
of the Industrial Scientific Revolution), then all four parts of the
entire human universe fall out of balance and that imbalance creates
war and chaos. His analysis of the present Western Industrial
situation is that hyper-rationalism, Urizen, has taken over. In
certain cases such as revolution, Luvah (emotion) or Urthona (imagination)
might take over primary power in a curious way and cause imbalance.
Obviously if Tharmas (the body) takes over without reason or imagination,
and without genuine emotion, there'll be another catastrophe of muscle-bound
brutishness. And if hyper-imagination (Urthona) takes over,
it's like an acidhead taking his clothes off and running in front
of cars, screaming, 'Stop the machines!' or Luvah (emotion) might
drown the world in Jewish mother chicken soup. Obviously it's
a very ordinary-mind notion that the raising of the whole man, Albion,
requires a balance of imaginative faculty, emotional faculty, rational
faculty and a firm body" (17-19). Following in the footsteps
of Walt Whitman, and the carnival of physical perception which Whitman
initiated, Orlovsky "sings the body electric." It is amusing
to imagine what the overly rational Pilgrim Fathers, who despised
the body and especially emotions in the body, would think upon reading
Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs, with its
naked celebration of the physical aspect of life, such as in these
aren't maney people in the world this summer
who can boast working tan assed man on the job
nailing roff on
putting up board & batton
painting rafter beams waterproof
nailing tung & gruve floor
a wooden jem retreat meditation little house
we built in Sierra Nevadas
& quite a few times
the sun gave me a warm kiss
on the center of my ass hole
wile bending deep down doing some funny work"
from "Good Fuck With Denise," in CA Poems 115-116).
seems to mock the preoccupation with the mental and the imaginary
of most poets. He has a careless disregard for the academic,
and instead focuses on physical nature, and on the outside.
While most Americans' spiritual stock portfolio would consist of a
majority share being held by reason, Orlovsky's majority share is
held by body, and reason plays very little part. This is intentionally
so. He doesn't spell very well, which is part of his open disregard
for the niceties of academic thought. In fact the title of his
"Frist Poem," is misspelled, and words are misspelled throughout the
volume to follow the way they sound to Orlovsky's ear. Orlovsky
comes across as a Rousseauian primitive, writing down an American
thought pattern without even the slightest fear of continental Europe,
especially England, which might be looking over his shoulder and smirking.
The introduction to the volume, by poet Gregory Corso, recalls the
praise of William Carlos Williams, who said about Orlovsky's verses,
"Nothing English about it -- pure American" (cited in CA Poems Introduction
It is almost impossible to imagine
an English poet like John Milton, or even as apparently anarchic a
poet as Percy Shelley, writing about the asshole without an ideology
of repression covering that organ with Puritan fear and hatred of
the body. Even William Blake might have to stroke his chin thoughtfully
on encountering such an image. Orlovsky, as Corso puts it, "...hails
the human asshole as divine -- He offers humankind an anatomical compassion
for that bodily part long maligned, shame-wracked, and poetically
Orlovsky spent decades working
on a farm in upstate New York, which was purchased for him by Allen
Ginsberg. He specialized in growing nut trees, which take a
very long time to bear fruit. The dedication of Orlovsky's book
is to "J. Russell Smith," who wrote a volume called "Tree Crops: A
Permanent Agriculture" (3). The volume is "Also cheerfully dedicated
to worms & worm castings, kitchen vegetable organic wastes collected
& composted to back yard garden spots, gathering fall leaves for
more composting, pooling ol human manure back to garden-land, planting
as maney nut & fruit trees as I can every May, importing the growing
black organic power of soils where ever I be, keeping a big eye on
commercial fertilizer use because it burns the living organisms in
the soil. The soils in farm land America have gone from bad
to unbelievable worse by erosion & over use over the decades &
soil 'gone down hill'" (3).
naturalism of Orlovsky's work isn't feigned, but is he therefore primitive?
Corso writes, "Peter is an original; a refined spirit ... regard:
'neath his poetic capote nothing primitive holds claim -- an agricultural
romantic, the Shellean farmer astride his Pegasusian tractor repoems
the earth with trees of berry and roots of honey; whose dirtian hands
scribe verses of soy, odes of harvest; whose hymns to redolent shovels
of manure nourish the fields that so nourish us, both in body meal
and the cosmetics of soul" (7-8).
amusing attempt to enroll Orlovsky in the western pantheon through
his allusions to English Romantic poetry and its obsession with ancient
Greece is in actuality a reference to Corso's own poetic lineage,
which does betray classical learning, and a certain anxiety concerning
his eventual reception. Orlovsky's own lineage, as he puts it
in a short essay in the volume, "How I Write Poetry & Who I Learned
It From," lists Corso, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Catullus,
Rimbaud, Dostoevsky, Garcia Lorca, W.C. Williams, Apollinaire, Kenneth
Koch, Choygam Trungpa, Bob Dylan, Francois Villon and L.F. Celine,
Vladmir Mayakovsky and Serge Essenin. The list is probably not
comprehensive, but it is the basis. There are no English poets
in the list, and no Greek. However, the list is nevertheless
impressive. Orlovsky didn't spring out of the earth unbegotten.
American, Latin, Tibetan, French, and Russian. All classic outsiders.
What Orlovsky claims to appreciate in Gregory Corso -- the poet he
lists first in his inventory of influences -- are "funny spaech word-idea
combinations" and you see them throughout his astonishing work --
jumps of mind so fresh no English poet could come close. It
is difficult to place Orlovsky into an intellectual tradition, even
though he does this himself, as he is what Corso said, "an original."
His first and only book published two decades worth of perceptions
which seem to revel in nonchalance towards art, which show Orlovsky
as having little stake in the closed economy of art, and its ego pay-offs,
but writing more like the way a cat might mark a post as territory.
This is a rough, physical poetry, perhaps the most physical poetry
in western history, representing the spirit of what Blake would call
Tharmas (body) in its most hilarious innocence, but there is nevertheless
a long tradition at work here which Orlovsky brilliantly subverts:
my comes all over my cat,
& now she has something to do
under the belley, on the paw
behind the ear
near the tail
turns the Puritan preoccupation with spirit into a close reading of
the body. The body is foregrounded, and shown in its most animal
guise, with no fear and trembling of the spirit to accompany this
celebration of the body. It is an enormous feat, and it comes
not from a know-nothing, which Orlovsky cagily pretends to be, but
rather from a Beat missionary. Orlovsky is a believer.
He believes in spirit, and in joy, and it comes through in almost
every poem he writes. His very crudeness is a sign of his belief.
To quote no less a believer than G.K. Chesterton: "Let no man deceive
himself; if by vulgarity we mean coarseness of speech, rowdiness of
behavior, gossip, horseplay, and some heavy drinking, vulgarity there
always was wherever there was joy, wherever there was faith in the
gods. Wherever you have belief you will have hilarity, wherever
you have hilarity you will have some dangers... If we ever get the
English back on to the English land they will become again a religious
people, if all goes well, a superstitious people" (Heretics 101).
Orlovsky's poems have a spiritual
quality, in which the human is made almost purely animal. Orlovsky
is the one great Beat writer who never had an education in a university.
His school was the Beat movement itself, but it is one in which he
surpassed his masters through not having to get rid of a Puritan academic
education. Like fellow Beat Neal Cassady, Orlovsky lived an
open economy of generosity, and couldn't be bothered to count what
belonged to whom, making love with everybody he could get his hands
on, as if the universe was inexhaustible. Everything in the
poems speak of a religion of pure physical impression and the endless
pleasure of living, but they nevertheless reference the tradition
of poetry and they play with that rarefied tradition in order to bring
it back to an awareness of the physical, as in this subversion of
the Japanese haiku.
up in all the rooms
Is that my heaven to clean up
Well! Here I am in the
city tickling floors
floors possess pleasant sensation and even vomit can be heavenly.
Remembering making love to a teenage girl, he writes that he wanted
it all the more again --
as if trying to get used to it --
wasent real enough & so
had to be in constant tuch
with it & my face always
watching hers -- to see if
she liked more & more what I
wanted to do -- I was jentle
as looking at a flower & I wanted
to smell her too"
"Out at Sea" 80-81)
is the lines, "trying to get used to it --/ wasent real enough &
so/ had to be in constant tuch/ with it" that I think defines Orlovsky's
poetic principle. His poetry is always about getting life to
be more real, to get the physical aspect of life, which has been missing
for so long in western culture, as it has made place for the closed
and privileged economy of the mental. Orlovsky's poetry's power
is dependent on the tangible and kinetic, something which goes against
the prevailing trends in western cultural circles which privilege
intelligence, placing man above animals, and animals above plants,
and plants above rocks. Orlovsky's poetry implicitly questions
this hierarchy, giving even floors the respect of being able to be
tickled, and he gives words themselves a physical aspect by misspelling
them, turning them from signs into things.
the poem "Me & Allen" Orlovsky writes of his own realization of
a basic difference that he has with Ginsberg:
big difference between me & Allen -- he
has such far verbal poetry image --
connecting images getting sap
...it all takes
place in my torso stomach
& up to chest - got by
long talks with myself --
but based not on deep
realization on verbal level
but I get realization on
emotions pull -- pull of
emotion -- emotional sap
juce spreading thro out
body & makes me wigle in
Ginsberg's poetry was verbal, and thus originally mental, Orlovsky's
is a physical poetry, beginning in a place in his chest somewhere,
in his body. As most readers of poetry expect mental pleasures
and solid thematic concerns, they can deal with Ginsberg's poetry
and even canonize it, because it begins in the mental verbal sphere
and only later connects with emotional and physical aspects of life.
Orlovsky, on the other hand, is primarily a physical poet, who must
connect to emotional and intellectual aspects. He is what Ginsberg
tried to be: this is probably why Ginsberg loved him. Orlovsky's
poetry comes from a place somewhere in the body. As our mind
is used to read, not our body, the mind doesn't recognize this poetry
and is perhaps even angered at this usurpation of the place of the
mind in poetry, and aghast at the open feelings displayed. The
intensity of Orlovsky's appreciation of the physical world isn't something
he earned, however, but something he started with, just as some poets
begin with too much reason, and have to learn about imagination, emotion,
was already the dominant at the beginning of Orlovsky's work.
In his "Second Poem," he opens:
again, nothing has to be done,
maybe buy a piano or make
At least clean the room up for sure like my farther I've done flick
the ashes & butts over the
bed side on the floor.
But frist of all wipe my glasses and drink the water
to clean the smelly mouth.
A nock on the door, a cat walks in, behind her the zoo's baby
elephant demanding fresh pancakes
-- I cant stand these
hallucinations aney more
world is a simple physical one of the present tense. It is as
if while everyone else is living in some future of acquisition in
the verbal and mental and financial rat race, Orlovsky naturally lives
in the present, intensely aware of the physical facts of filthy cigarettes,
mouths, and the charm of animal life. His mind jumps between
sensations, hilariously annotating, and his poem ends:
the dishes I can do that for I am thinking of getting a job in
My life and my room are like two huge bugs following me
around the globe.
Thank god I have an innocent eye for nature.
I was born to remember a song about love -- on a hill a butterfly
makes a cup that I drink from,
walking over a bridge of
the jumps indicate an unbalanced mind or not? As G.K. Chesterton
wrote, "...I should regard any mind which had not got the habit in
one form or another of uproarious thinking as being, from the full
human point of view, a defective mind" (232). And Chesterton
says further, "...unless a man is in part a humorist, he is only in
part a man" (233). Orlovsky's work is loaded with short comic
sequences, as in the idea of a cat knocking on the door and walking
in followed by the zoo's baby elephant, which are both apparently
free to come and go as they please, and demand pancakes, too.
Orlovsky even feels sorry for animals since he gets to have a bed,
and they don't: "Oh, bed, only for man & not for animals/ yellow
bed when will the animals have equal rights?" (13). If Orlovsky
is sometimes less than rational, I will quote once more from Chesterton,
to whom Orlovsky bears a strong affinity. "There has been no
rationalist festival, no rationalist ecstasy" (98).
poetry is irrational, and seems to see all of life as one big festival
of ecstasy. At the end of his "Frist Poem," he writes,
turns into a silver dollar on the bed.
I look out the window and see nobody, I go down the street,
look up at my window and see nobody.
So I talk to the fire hydrant, asking, "Do you have bigger tears
then I do?"
Nobody around, I piss anywhere.
My Gabriel horns, my Gabriel horns: unfold the cheerfullies,
my gay jubilation (10).
poetry is a natural poetry of a man as big and robust and as free
of moral cant as a grizzly. Unlike the Puritan fathers who founded
America, Orlovsky sees humor and life in shit, and beauty in the asshole.
He is full of a kind of natural fun which it seems most Americans
have always been shut out of as they work in a closed economy of getting
the individual soul back to heaven, or the individual consumer into
a bigger house and yard. Take the American impressionist painter
James Whistler, for instance, who specialized in merciless invective
at others' expense. Chesterton writes of him, "There was no
laughter in his nature; because there was no thoughtlessness and self-abandonment,
no humility" (239). I have the feeling, on the other hand, that
Chesterton would have appreciated Orlovsky and his sense of an open
economy, an economy in which animals have equal rights with humans.
Orlovsky's last poem in his book
is a hymn to the shit of New York City, which he "argues" could be
recycled. The poem is titled, "America -- Give a Shit!"
How many pounds does my city piss & shit in a day?
How do we scoop it all up -- collected?
& composted & brought back to farms
whear it belongs all along.
I know worm droppings are 15 dollars a pound.
I'll have to go study cities sewage blue prints
& dream of vaccuum-flush toilets.
Remembering Allen & me walking to East River
& there we saw the sewage flow about 2 feet deep
our 6 foot diameter tunnel
slowely moveing melting into East River.
What interesting surprise brown flow discovery,
on its way to East Rivers garden
poem is an idea about life as a perpetual motion machine, instead
of as a closed economy. Even Allen Ginsberg looks closed and
stingy compared to Orlovsky, whose "Dharma name is 'Ocean of Generosity,'"
Ginsberg writes in the back cover blurb to Orlovsky's book.
A poet of earthy nature, whose mind is seemingly dedicated to the
body, while increasingly we use our bodies to do things with our minds,
such as play chess, or study languages, or get ahead in the rat race,
Orlovsky's poetry suggests that we use our minds primarily in order
to enjoy our bodies. Orlovsky's one short volume of verse hails
a different order altogether, reversing or at least balancing the
"higher" values of American society since its inception, of a primarily
rational world. Orlovsky's poetry is one of naked delight in
the physical, a kind of purely American poetry which has its ear close
to the American soul, but what comes out is unlike anything else ever
written. As Gregory Corso insightfully writes, "Orlovsky was
the kind of natural voice W.C.W. [William Carlos Williams] believed
America would one day sound... Peter has voiced a volume of
poems, pure Americana, and unlike any American sound. Bucolic
and sexual, these poems are replicate of his farmer produce (organic
and natural) and of his love for the male and female of his heart's
is what the ecological movement is looking for, and is perhaps afraid
to find: a poet without any Protestant overlay, without any fakey
moralism, a poet who has seemingly been able to step outside the world
of the artificial, and into natural animal life, seeing reality with
such a physical and emotional perception that he breaks into seeing
the world as an unlimited economy and makes a long speech to the Statue
of Liberty in New York harbor as his ship (Orlovsky spent several
years working as a merchant marine) comes in,
love -- blow me a kiss --
share my cock intimacy with me --
I long for intimacy -- that warmth
that builds arked rainbow babies --
the pen is about to wear out --
I must run & get my foot to feel
as big as the statue of Libirtys foot --
my inside tooth to feel as big as
the statue of Libirty --
the sea coffens me up --
no sight of birds in winter
no calling sounds of seagulls
no army of statues of libirties across the sea --
Let fall the hands of blood --
France free arabs banana land
England free Johannesberg
whare black negroes are my brothers
& America stop giveing money
& economic aid with strings
freedom is that called?
The sour faces hurrying on the street
dont know of my love --
their minds are distracted by hipnotic
lights that get behind the eyeball
into the wavery parts of the brains
& makes more waves then what their are
til the skull begins to wave in competitive
argument for an open economy, one in which a return is not requested
for favors granted, in which America gives money without strings and
former colonies are granted their freedom without a fight (the poem
was written in the late 1950s when Algeria was still a French colony
fighting for its independence), and one in which people hurrying by
with sour faces stop and laugh and delight in physical pleasure shows
the world which Ginsberg vaguely imagined in his poetry, but which
Orlovsky, it seems, lived. His poetry is one of true belief
in the goodness of nature and the spirit, and is unlike anything ever
written in the American language, although there are close parallels.
Think of Charles Bukowski's very physical poetry for a moment, and
its similar roughness, but note how imbalanced Bukowski is in terms
of feeling compassion, or emotion, and how limited his imagination.
Orlovsky has these other qualities,
too. The one thing he struggles with is reason. While
this writer is simultaneously one of the happiest poets one can read,
his depressions are equally gigantic, because he doesn't have much
of a rational perspective, he can't stand back and see the larger
picture very easily. In India, he meets a leper woman, and goes
about washing out her maggot infested skin with Hydrogen Peroxide
without stopping to think of the hopelessness of the situation:
poured the Hydrogen Peroxide -- I had to
turn her over on her side -- the
maggots became more alive and
active & danced into the air
above her side more. It was
difficult to get all the maggots out
so after a few
pourings and cotton cleanings I
covered it with sulpher ointment (106-107)
the ultimate result of this treatment, and this attempt to help this
poorest of individuals, a leper whose toes had fallen off and who
was infested with maggots, and trying to clean up her street from
all the shit lying about, and trying to go to the water commissioner
and get a fresh water pipe laid in, is that after he goes away for
a week, he comes back to find the woman is dead and in a pile of people
being prepared for cremation.
I thought that maybe me
by killing the maggots
it opened the Blood Veins
or something to cause premature
death -- its all so sad -- (110)
physical horror of this several page description (Orlovsky describes
the smells quite well, and is very precise about the wounds the woman
suffered) makes the piece border on a kind of sublime, in which one
wonders how a human being could live through the experience, and go
on. It is hard to see any English poet in this situation.
It is very hard to see John Milton, or Percy Shelley, or even a rougher
American poet like Charles Bukowski, or anybody but Peter Orlovsky
in this situation. Most literate people in the Anglophone world
today think well, and don't feel much, and don't care about either
their own body or that of others, after four centuries of Puritan
emphasis on the body's vanity and lack of importance. Orlovsky
feels with his body throughout his poetry, as easily as most people
balance their bank accounts, and thus he feels for the bodies of others,
too. If for Wordsworth poetry was "emotion recollected in tranquillity,"
then for Orlovsky, who is starting in a different faculty, poetry
is "bodies recollected in tranquillity," because it is only ten years
later (the incident with the leper is dated 1961, but the poem is
dated 1971) that Orlovsky is able to understand the situation from
a perspective rational enough to write a poem about it. Orlovsky's
realm is Tharmas, the physical, and it is the other realms which he
has to balance, a quite unusual situation in western poetry, which
often privileges the rational, and imaginative, over other components,
and overlooks emotion and physical experience. I think even
William Blake didn't have this kind of ability to face the hardest
facts of the physical universe such as maggots on lepers, although
he would probably have appreciated Orlovsky's concerns.
If William Burroughs and Allen
Ginsberg were the great rational minds of the Beat generation, Orlovsky
and Neal Cassady were in some sense the great bodies, and it is easy
to see why they were loved, as they had something the former lacked
and knew they needed. The Beat movement wanted to make the world
into heaven, through beatific balance of the four faculties. They
were impatient with cynical "rat racers," (Orlovsky 66) who weren't
trying to make a whole man, Albion, but who were instead living in
one unbalanced virtue. Orlovsky began in the physical realm,
but he struggled with imagination, and emotion, and reason, and I
think his poetry is finally remarkably intelligent, and has a good
balance of imagination and emotion, as well, which is something that
I don't think could be said for Neal Cassady's writings, which simply
don't attain the same level of balance. Nevertheless, to those
whose life has begun and ended in the sphere of reason, Orlovsky's
achievement probably seems minimal, because it is being judged from
the mental sphere alone. Judged from the perspective of all
four faculties, however, Orlovsky's poetry takes on a greater value,
and suddenly looks magical.
Ginsberg writes in his book on
Blake, "Urizen is the principle of excessively cutting intelligence,
a destructive or negative intellect so solidified or impacted that
it doesn't allow for any feeling or bodily rest or richness or generosity
of imaginative space... I would say the triumph of Urizenic
mentality would probably be the neutron bomb in the sense that it
destroys people and leaves architectural constructions intact.
Overweening Urizen, the scoundrelish mental quality, involves abstracted
judgement, limitation of senses and emotions, loss of imagination"
(20-22). Orlovsky's writings possess nothing of this "scoundrelish
mental quality" which is so nakedly apparent in the neutron bomb,
one of America's defining products.
The Beats provided America with
a new mythos, which was to open the self-limiting and knavish system
of rationalism with the wonder of imagination, and emotion, as well
as physical pleasures. Orlovsky was very physical even in his
teenage years. In "Love Poem to A.J. Muste," Orlovsky describes
his extensive weight lifting routines as a teenager:
irons and jerking weights
on wooded Long Island hill -
2 to 3 hours 3 times a week &
maybe a little extra on Sat. & Sundays"
ended with thigh squats
3 sets of 10 repetitions
that makes 30 squats about"
powerful physique and energy made him into a good athlete, capable
of working comfortably on a farm as he got older. Again it is
useful to imagine most poets in a similar situation: Percy Shelley
lifting weights as a teenager, Wallace Stevens working out?
To think of Allen Ginsberg as a teenager -- thick glasses, days and
nights spent reading, while Orlovsky was on the other side of town
Orlovsky thus could provide a
kind of corrective to the Beats who wished to get more of the physical
into their writing, so that American poetry and life could achieve
the balance which William Blake had outlined. As irrationally
open in their economy, as foolishly generous as the Beats may have
seemed to others, especially Puritan Americans (many of whom are still
furious about the Beat legacy), it is important to see that the Beats,
too, had a spiritual mission, and that it is a much saner one of balancing
the four faculties. A sense of wholeness, humor, and compassion
comes through in the best Beat writings. Chesterton wrote, "...there
cannot be any better proof of the practical efficiency of a nation
than that it talks constantly of a journey to the end of the world,
a journey to the Judgment Day and the New Jerusalem" (17).
The Puritan fathers, such as John
Winthrop in his speech of 1630, talked of America as "'a city upon
a hill,' a new Jerusalem" (Dean, and Winthrop cited in Dean 28).
The Beat movement, too, saw America as an example to the rest of the
world, but contested the bodiless abstract which the Puritans posited
as the New Jerusalem, and sought to redress the overwhelming emphasis
on the furious logic of the afterlife, and balance it with humor,
and physical pleasure, imagination, and sexual love. Orlovsky
wanted a new Jerusalem, but the city he saw was radically different
from the city projected by Winthrop's ilk. Orlovsky's poetry,
neglected and often treated as minor even by students and fellow poets
in the Beat tradition (there are almost no critical appreciations
that one can find outside of what is printed in Orlovsky's own volume),
is nevertheless a crucial document in the Beat revolution. Orlovsky's
is a very highly evolved sensibility -- which begins with a resurrection
of the asshole, the repression of which quickly leads to the repression
of the entire physical self. Orlovsky's New Jerusalem is a city
of saintly assholes, and represents from a physical perspective the
radical flowering of the Beat consciousness.
G.K. Heretics (London: John Lane, 1905).
Tim. Gary Snyder and the American Unconscious (London:
Allen. Your Reason & Blake's System (Madras & New York:
Peter. Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs (San
Francisco: City Lights, 1978).