Part I- Introduction
“Sometimes the light’s all shining on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me
What a long strange trip it’s been (‘ Truckin,’ The Grateful Dead, (American Beauty
Free associating about the title of our panel, ‘The Confluence of Poetry and psychohistory (Part II), brings up for me the final lyric of the song by The Grateful Dead, ‘Truckin.’ Going with the spontaneous flow of thoughts and feelings, I realize that the work of the poet/psycho-historian/psychotherapist encompasses the ability to deal with the times that the “light’s all shining on me” and we are able to understand the complexity of our subjects while, at other times, we. “can barely see.”
Poets and their poetry offer the psycho-historian a window into the zeitgeist of the times. In a letter to Charles Ollier ( October, 1819), Shelley wrote, “from the springs of thought and feeling, which the great events of our age have exposed to our view, a similar tone of sentiment, imagery and expression – and that such similarity in the ‘best writers’ attests to the spirit of the age acted on all.”
Wordsworth in Preface to Lyrical Ballads ( 1802) wrote, “ What then does the Poet? He considers man and the objects that surround him as acting and reacting upon each other.”
Another skill that can be learned from the work of poets is Keats idea about ‘negative capability (1817).’ In a letter to his brother, Keats wrote about ‘negativity capability,’ as the capacity to tolerate both being in uncertainty and unknowing – when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries doubts without any irritable reach after fact or reason… … in order to allow, as yet unimagined, creative possibilities to emerge.”
Such august poets as Shelley, Wordsworth and Keats give their collective seal of approval on the notion that poetry is a gateway to understanding an historical place and time. In this presentation, I hope to demonstrate how psycho-historians writing prose poems of their own might engage in conversations with the poets and poetry of an age. By doing so, one can learn a great deal about one’s own counter-transferential anxieties and concerns as well as those of an historical moment. I will focus on the poetry, writing, and lyrics of Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, and the rock group, The Grateful Dead.
Part II- Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked…( Ginsberg, Howl, 1956).
I read Howl. at 18, for the first time in 1966. I was completely blown away by the poem’s first line- yes, I, too, had witnessed some of “the best minds,” destroyed by the madness of the 1950’s. My family torn apart by the McCarthy madness and the poisonous conformity of the times. Grandmother living with us walking around our Brooklyn apartment announcing that, “the walls have ears,” and that no one is to be trusted. A casualty of the ‘commie wars,’ she lived in constant fear of being outed as a ‘red menace’ by McCarthy zombies looking for fresh meat to grind up in the infernal death machine of HUAC. Simultaneously, dreams of the Soviet paradise forever destroyed by Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s purges and betrayal of the revolution leads to a total breakdown- nothing to believe in, the Holy Soviet Church a lie- all for nothing!
Politics lived and breathed its toxic breath within the living room. My father caught up in the war between the furrier’s union and mob- wanting a union shop but destroyed by Mafioso distributors who wanted to destroy the union.
Ginsberg’s poem is a tirade against a murderous age of ‘grey flannel suits and suburban deadness. His poem is primary source material. For this psycho-historian, it is a window into her own history as entwined and molded by an historical moment.
Part III- Patti Smith (1946-)
“I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it.”
“It seemed to me that the vibrating patterns overhead were sliding into place. The mandala of my life.”
“Paths that cross will cross again.” (Just Kids, 2010)
In Just Kids, Patti Smith, singer/songwriter/poet/artist/ punk rocker has written a memoir, more an elongated prose poem, about her relationship to a time- 1960’s -1990 as entwined with her relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989).
In this variation on a bildungsroman, Smith traces not only her own development as an artist but also the evolution of who she designates as her, ‘double’, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. She charts their trials and tribulations as they traverse the landscape of the late 60’s to the late 80’s.
Just Kids reads like a travel guide through the remnants of 1950’s America’s Bohemia- Greenwich Village, the Chelsea Hotel, 1960’s counter-culture- Flower Power; Andy Warhol’s factory; Woodstock, Vietnam- Kent State, Watergate, feminism, lgbt struggles for equality the rise of punk at CBGB-the home of all things punked out and ends with the horror of the AIDS epidemic and the death of Robert Mapplethorpe from full blown AIDS.
Living in a parallel universe in real time with both Patti and Robert, I read this memoir with a keen interest as to whether their experiences bore any resemblance to my own memories. Indeed, I agree with Patti’s observation of those times, “ I’m sure there were downs as well, but my memories are served with nostalgia and humor.” Of course, when you are young everything is an adventure, a journey into new experiences – you live with eyes that see what you want them to see.
The dream landscapes of the 60’s and 70’s quickly morphed into nightmares- the deaths of Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Van Morrison- sacrifices upon the psychedic altar- prescient visions of Manson, Patty Hearst, KOOL-AID and Jonestown, and the ever present Viet-Nam- the Apocalypse of Now brought to life by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979- America’s ‘heart of darkness’ exposed for all to flee from.
Yes, we were Just Kids- but over time Smith writes, “ it seemed as if the whole world was slowly being stripped of innocence… …Or maybe I was seeing a little too clearly.”
By the end of Smiths remarkable prose poem, Mapplethorpe dies of AIDS. She describes how poetry helped her to work through her loss; “ I had transfigured the twisted aspects of my grief and spread them out as a shining cloth, a memorial song for Robert.” Her time with Robert had ended but her writing immortalizes him and all that was their world.
Patti Smith’s, Just Kids, provides the psycho-historian with a goldmine of material reflective of a time in history- she gives us a plentiful source-book of two souls setting out on a journey of self-discovery within the ‘dream-factory’ of late twentieth century America.
Part III- The Grateful Dead ( 1965- 1995)
“Truckin- up to Buffalo
Been thinkin- you got to mellow slow
Takes time- you pick a place to go
and just keep Truckin’ on “ – The Grateful Dead(1970)
The Grateful Dead – American rock band – started out in California- best known for chief ‘deadhead,’ Jerry Garcia- a group that is the essence of ‘sex, drugs, and rock’n roll. The band and their groupies were associated with the hippies and yippies of the late 60’s and 70’s. Their music a combo of blues, rock, bluegrass, jazz, and of course psychedelics.
Story goes that Jerry Garcia chose the name The Grateful Dead while looking through an old Britannica World Language dictionary wherein he discovered that the phrase related to a “ song meant to show a lost soul to the other side.” Whatever the origin of the band’s name, many a lost soul steered the course of their life while listening to the band’s music.
The music and lyrics of this group are an invaluable source for understanding the counter-cultural trends from the band’s inception in 1965-1995. They provide insight into rock’s counter-narrative to pop music.
I associate the song ‘Truckin’ with my time as a graduate student at SUNY Buffalo in the early 1970’s. Just married, my then husband and I ‘trucked’ up to Buffalo- he to medical school and me – to graduate school. We arrived at the time of Attica. Sharpshooters atop buildings shooting at us while yelling, “jew, commie New Yorkers, get out of here.”
Hearing the ‘Truckin’ lyrics,
“ Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street
Chicago, New York, Detroit, it’s all on the same street
Your typical city involved in a typical daydream
Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings.”
And the daydream was more of a nightmare scenario of radical students protesting the horrors of Attica and Vietnam. Always, we were hoping for a different tomorrow, not knowing what tomorrow brings.
As psycho-historians we need to remember that music and lyrics are invaluable primary sources- they speak to both the immediacy of a given historical moment as well as to the hope and dreams of a society.
Part IV- Conclusion
“Perhaps the best is always cumulative. One’s eating and drinking one wants fresh,
and for the nonce, right off, and have done with it- but I would not give a straw for
that person or poem, or friend, or city, or work of art, that was not more grateful
the second time than the first- and more still the third. Nay, I do not believe any
grandest eligibility ever comes forth at first. In my own experience ( persons,
poems, places, characters,) I discover the best hardly ever at first, ( no absolute
rule about it, however,) sometimes suddenly bursting forth, or stealthily opening
to me, perhaps after years of unwitting familiarity, unappreciation, usage.”
A Discovery of Old Age, Walt Whitman, Prose Works, 1892.
Our exploration of the importance of poetry (encompassing poems, prose poems and lyrics) reveals that much is to be discovered in these primary source materials. For as Walt Whitman has strongly advised we need to look at our sources a second and third time in order to delve more deeply into their meanings. As psycho-historians we can learn a great deal about an historical epoch by extending our research into trends in popular culture – poetry, music, art, comics, film, television- all reflect back to us the concerns of a society in a given time and place.
Additionally, we need to look at our counter-transference with the material and discern how we distort or bias our presentation of the material. We need to approach our material as a conversation we are having with another- different perspectives – many ambiguities – much that is strange and full of wonder – yes,
“what a long strange trip it’s been.”