Sunday, May 6, 2012

Lenore Kandel: Collected Poems

Due to a confluence of circumstances - being a woman in the male-centric mode of Beat literature, being involved in a motorcycle accident that abruptly postponed a burgeoning career, and virtually disappearing from the public eye altogether - the work of one of the Beat Generation's most talented poets has been virtually forgotten.

Until now.

The publication of The Collected Poems of Lenore Kandel, published by North Atlantic Books, is a major milestone in the history of Beat and I'm here to report, after finishing the volume, that it is everything an enthusiastic reader might anticipate and much, much more.

If you go through the literature - the anthologies, the studies, the critiques - you will find a real paucity of material by and about Lenore Kandel.  In some cases, her work is completely neglected.  She is missing, for instance, from Bill Morgan's recent The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete Uncensored History of the Beat Generation, from Anne Waldman's The Beat Reader (though she is in the Waldman edited The Beat Book) and minimally mentioned in Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation and Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers and The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats.  For some, her late arrival on the SF scene, coupled with her relative obscurity (in one interview Anne Waldman characterized her as "a recluse"), may have led to this exclusion.

She is fairly represented in Women of the Beat Generation by Brenda Knight, Rick Peabody's A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, and there are interesting interviews with her in The Beat Generation by Bruce Cook and Voices from the Love Generation edited by Leonard Wolf.  There are plenty of more resources out there, both lacking and representational on Kandel, if you're willing to dig.

All this goes a long way to why this collection is so welcome.   A great majority of the poetry published in this volume is over 40 years old and has never been gathered together in one place until now.

A very fine piece on Kandel, by John M. Carey, can be found in Beat Culture:Lifestyles, Icons and Impact by William LawlorAs recounted by Lawlor, from the early age of 12 she was interested in poetry and Buddhism.  Her first published work appeared in 1959, collected in Complete Poems in the section "Poems from Three Penny Chapbooks."  In San Francisco she met other Beat poets interested in Eastern culture at the East-West House, notably Lew Welch and Gary Snyder.  Soon affiliated with SF Renaissance writers, she went to Big Sur with Welch and Jack Kerouac, and was later portrayed by Kerouac as Romana Schwartz in his novel Big Sur.

There are number of penetrating quotes from her about this period in Jack's Book, the oral biography by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee, in which she perceptively portrays Kerouac as at once deeply troubled yet still notably giving and generous to those around him. A voracious reader, she was greatly influenced by Kerouac's poetics and his deep interest in Buddhism  She spent a number of years studying at the East-West House and became an important figure in the emerging Hippie movement, being the only major woman participant in the Summer of Love's Human Be-In and a member of the infamous Diggers.

The Love Book, published in 1966, became victim of a symbolic crackdown by newly elected California governor, Ronald Reagan.  In a raid of the Psychedelic Shop and City Lights Bookshop, the chapbook was confiscated and subsequently prosecuted as obscene.   Though the decision was eventually overturned, The Love Book was found by the jury to be obscene and, according to Charles Perry in The Haight Ashbury, the chapbook, which had sold only 50 copies up to that time, went on to sell over 20,000 after achieving notoriety. Kandel accordingly announced that she would donate 1% of the profits to the SF Police Retirement Association.

As can be seen from the cover below, a detail from a Tibetan scroll, her focus on sex and love was based in part on Hindi/Buddhist sources, something of a philosophy of transcendence as may be found in Tantricism as it is thought of in the popular imagination.  If ever there was a poetic document that might be thought of as representational of the Love Generation, the Sexual Revolution, and what was the hippie incarnation of the Free Love philosophy, this would have to be given due consideration as it.  Certainly it was in fact less a product of its time than it was in the vanguard of bringing these ideas to the attention of the artistic community and later the culture at large. 

The two primary volumes published during her lifetime - one being the transcendent, controversial chapbook The Love Book, as mentioned above, and the other the fine monograph Word Alchemyare here both in their entirety in the Collected Poems, along with over 150 pages of poetry seeing book publication for the first time.  The uncollected material is gathered into 4 sections: "Poems from Three Penny Press Chapbooks (1959)," "Poems from Little Magazines and Broadsides (1960-1992)," "Unpublished Works," and "A Fictional Sketch (1953)."

The Collected Poems is worth having just for bringing the first two volumes back into print, both of which are major works in the Beat canon.  What is found in the other four sections, however, will delight long-time Kandel fans and those new to her work.  Though there are a number of fine brief poems, it is the longer lyrical work, running from 1 to 6 pages, that is her forté and there are plenty of fine examples in Collected that have either never seen the light of day or were only published once and disappeared.

I've been a big fan of Kandel ever since I picked up a copy of Word Alchemy in a used bookshop many, many years ago.  Her work is, if you had to chose between one of the essential four elements, fire.  It is ecstatic, numinous, tapped into the original source. The love she writes of is highly erotized, highly sexualized, done in a manner which was shocking for the time and still might raise eyebrows today.  Her themes and style serves as a perfect bridge between the Beat movement poets and those of the Love/Hippie generation that followed.

What is of great importance is the context within which she worked.  There is a mystic quality to her musings, a struggle for transcendence that at once mirrored that of the 60s generation and prefigured the massive interest of things Eastern that the Beats were bringing to the cultural fore. She was balls out before the men even thought of showing up, and, though this may end up being her claim to renown, it is hardly all she encompassed.  Her work is straight forward, superbly paced and a bit surreal, with an occasional sweet, slightly dated naivete, but never more so than any of her contemporaries.  Erotized love is grounded with Kandel in Eastern spirituality; as mentioned above, there is a distinct Hindi flavor to her work, with Buddhist tones, and I found myself thinking of the Tantric tradition more than once while immersed in her work.   As such, "The Love Poem" reads and serves as a kind of sexualized/spiritual manifesto, one that continues in poems such as "The Love-Lust Poem," "Three/Love Poem," "Baby listen ..." and "Fuck/Angel" (From the Little Magazine section).

Sometimes, reading through the volume felt like working a dig site, excavating the past, its concerns, its excentricites and its delights.  As one progresses through, side by side with her love manifesto and the pursuit of a new way of engaging the world is the drug culture in its positive and negative aspect, the gradual dissolution of the 60s dream, and a world peopled with junkie angels.  A fine example that captures both sides of that dream may be found in the following:

Poem for Tyrants
sentient beings are numberless-
         I vow to enlighten them all
-The First Vow of Buddhism
it seems I must love even you
easier loving the pretty things
the children   the morning glories
easier    (as compassion grows)
to love the stranger

easy even to realize      (with compassion)
the pain and terror implicit in those
who treat the world around them
with such brutality     such hate

but oh   I am no christ
blessing my executioners
I am no buddha   no saint
nor have I that incandescent strength
of faith illuminated

yet   even so
you are a sentient being
breathing this air
even as I am a sentient being
breathing this air
seeking my own enlightenment
I must seek yours

if I had love enough
if I had faith enough
perhaps I could transcend your path
and alter even that

forgive me, then 
I cannot love you yet

One of her oft anthologized poems, First They Slaughtered the Angels, captures the darkness, head-on.  Here is the first of 4 sections:

First They Slaughtered the Angels


First they slaughtered the angels
tying their thin white legs with wired cords
opening their silk throats with icy knives
They died fluttering their wings like chickens
and their immortal blood wet the burning ground

we watched from the underground
from the gravestones, the crypts
chewing our bony fingers
shivering in our piss-stained winding sheets
The seraphs and the cherubim are gone
they have eaten them and cracked their bones for marrow
they have wiped their asses on angel feathers
and now they walk the rubbled streets with
eyes like fire pits

This is a poem from the section "Poems from Little Magazines and Broadsides (1960-1992)," dealing with transcendence in an almost matter of fact manner, with sometimes the eye of a botanist, at other times the eye of an archeologist, always the eye of All:

Hawaiian Mountain

Up here on the mountain there is nothing to forget
whatever is is incontestable
The sun rising over the eastern trees
starts the earliest birds
spiraling their songs against the sky
and the luminous light of dawn exposes the land
the coarse thick grass of the pastures glows with a living green
lush, vibrant, a brilliance that accosts the eye
the trees are various,
groves of a darker green edging the hilly ridge
silver leaved solitaires, and dead bare branches
mock foliated with pale green and vivid orange lichens
not many flowers grow this high
small crimson secrets that bloom hidden in the grass
a million insects scuttle through the larder of the day
the spider hanging watchful in his web
Full moon and the sun illuminates my mind
I sit on the edge of the cliff, trying to discern the difference
between my body and my thought
watching the white waves of the ocean stand frozen
twenty six hundred feet below my toes
brown-and-white and black the cattle dot the pastures
eating their way through bovine eternity
chewing oblivion with their grass-pale white lashed eyes
The clouds blow white across the sky
descending now and then to hang in the tree tops
or drift across the valleys below the mountain
and I look down on clouds
At evening the sun rolls below the ocean horizon
banners of light across the sky-glass of the Pacific
black lava coast, and the waters roll out
toward the sunset horizon
At night I listen to the stars, articulate prisms of the night
the resonance of light is music
and the air vibrates with rainbow flickers
connecting star and star across the plains of space
the moon hangs liquid in the sky, mad mirror of my dreams
sweet silver light chime-tinkling in my brain
later the wind blows, playing the planetary harp
arpeggios that echo in my breath

Up here on the mountain there are no façades to the universe
defenses of the civic mind negate themselves
and the search for the spirit totem claims the star
not earth alone has built this mountain nor this me
but earth one facet of the universal jewel
this light that pulses through the sky is part of me and I of it
this mountain and myself, life-rooted in oceanic earth
I stand upon its slopes of dormant fire
learning to listen
one more expansion of the unexpectant eye

Lastly, here is a poem from Word Alchemy, one that marries the erotic and the philosophical to the lyric, followed by a reading by Lenore from The Love BookThose who are language sensitive or easily offended (how you ever made it here, or this far, is a wonder) be forewarned:

Invocation for Mitreya

to invoke the divinity in man with the mutual gift of love
with love as animate and bright as death
the alchemical transfiguration of two separate entities
into one efflorescent deity made manifest in radiant human flesh
our bodies whirling through cosmos, the kiss of heartbeats
the subtle cognizance of hand for hand, and tongue for tongue
the warm moist fabric of the body opening into start-shot rose
the dewy cock effulgent as it burst the star
sweet cunt-mouth of world serpent Ouroboros girding the
as it takes its own eternal cock, and cock and cunt united
        join the circle
moving through realms of flesh made fantasy and fantasy made 
love as a force that melts the skin so that our bodies join
one cell at a time
until there is nothing left but the radiant universe
the meteors of light flaming through wordless skies
until there is nothing left but the smell of love
but the taste of love, but the fact of love
until love lies dreaming in the crotch of god. . . .

This is but the merest taste of what will prove to be one of the major original primary source documents of 20th century Beat culture published in the 21st century.  If you are at all inclined to the Beat ethos, don't miss this one, folks: it is poetry, it is culture, it is history, it is religion, it is life.  Kudos to North Atlantic Books, to Vicki Pollack, to Evan Karp, and to Lisa Kot for all helping to bring this fantastic volume together.

And most of all to Lenore Kandel for a spirit, a love, and a creativity that continues to reverberate down through the years.

The following youtube video is of Kandel reading from (and commenting on) her poem To Fuck with Love, Phase 2 from The Love Book.  


Along with the main text of Collected Poems, there are some other aspects of great interest.  First and foremost is Kandel's wonderful other manifesto, published separately and later in Word Alchemy, usually known as Poetry is Never Compromise, which is one of the finest statements of purpose to come out of the Beat Movement and is provided here as an introduction and is essential reading.  Diane di Prima, a long time friend of Kandel, provides a lyric, anecdotal, stream of consciousness preface entitled "Invitation to the Journey: An Homage for Lenore Kandel."  Also there is a necessarily brief biography, an index, and a Notes section which contains bibliographic info that is particularly helpful with the Three Penny Chapbooks and Little Magazines and Broadsides section.


from one corner to another
his searching eyes
  translated by David G. Lanoue


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Ed Baker said...

maybe leave this terrific "take" on this
for a month-of-Sundays

let's see who is
after all of these years
these eons


as for those who might be

a steady stream of pissants
returning to their holeinthe ground

I mean

the Hippies/ Beats? Diggers
didn't drop tons of napalm
on Vien Nam

damn few poet/artists
then as now
had (or have) the Balls
that this Lady had !

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks, Ed - yes, indeed:

"the Hippies/ Beats? Diggers
didn't drop tons of napalm
on Vien Nam

damn few poet/artists
then as now
had (or have) the Balls
that this Lady had !"

Just a great book ... hope it connects with some folks.


Ed Baker said...

for y'all who are yet paying-attention
add this to (thicken) the stew
("love me love my elephant")

it looks to me like she has/had some
Gypsy Blood
coursing through her mind/body

I also think that the guy wearing the red tie is Gregory Corso ....

an other Pistol !

Theresa Williams said...

Great entry! I don't know her work. Enjoyed learing about her.

Ed Baker said...

for some reason
I "got a bug-up-my-ass
about this

tomorrow I wish that I was in SF for this :

Theresa Williams said...

I can't believe I typed "learing." I meant LEARNING. Smart phone strikes again! But it really is a great entry...thank you!

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Yes, I think the SF gig is going to be great ...

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Somehow, learing is just right, in a liberating, non-judgmental way. I'm regularly making those kind of slips that, for me, are a little glimpse into the soul ...

Glad you liked this.


Theresa Williams said...

Thanks, Don...enjoyed that video...that thing she keeps doing with her foot...that strange movement is strangely moving. I enjoyed "learing" it :-)

Ed Baker said...

this just popped-up re: that book-launch:

Gerrie Nicosia is the guy who worked with Jan Kerouac
in putting together that book about Jack..

notice that the poems that Nicosia reads
.... read themselves

no need to rehearse just dive-in !