Longfellow Goes Beat

I live in one of the northernmost states in the U.S., a place where winter cannot be denied, and so we must make our treaty with cold and snow. Some will even claim it makes us better persons—hardier, accepting of the Zen of difficulties. Still, if Minnesota has inherent Buddhist elements, it doesn’t lessen my attachment to a shelf of warm clothes.

When I think of Buddhism I do not think first of ancient and overseas masters, but instead of the Beat Generation writers of my youth, the mostly men who reacted to the growing abstractions and high-mindedness of High Modernism with a return to immediacy and intimacy. The Beats could be seen as beaten-down by something, past the chance of winning a warm success, but they also asked that the word be understood as short for “beatific.” Allen Ginsberg explained: “The point of Beat is that you get beat down to a certain nakedness where you actually are able to see the world in a visionary way.*”

Like many things that meet America, Beat got absorbed and its rule-breaking became a style, a fad, a fashion, a look, a required attitude received with only enough meaning to make the accessory match the outfit. Every time I read to music here, I fear I’m seen as wearing a costume, playing a role.

Gaslight Poetry Cafe

Not quite as portrayed on the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the legendary New York Gaslight coffee shop

So, what’s this got to do with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—the square’s square—the man who wrote poetry that poets of the last 100 years find worthless?

Let me put Longfellow in a laboratory and see what we find. My lab: it’s a jazz club, probably downstairs, past the gray concrete curb turning winter white. It’s darkened enough inside the room that it’s sometime, night—but what year? The crowd is burbling, so’s the coffee machine. Wait staff are delivering and clearing tables, setting a tray on the bar for a moment to let another pass, talking of nights-off. A couple in the darker corner are nearly making out and can’t hear the band for the sight and breath of each other. A writer at a table closes a notebook, nothing more is in it today. The room is small but fairly full, about half talking their own talk and about half looking at the low bandstand, the quartet.**

The bass and drums begin, the guitar comments and the piano-player chords on the side. The bearded man steps to the mic, sheaf of paper in his hand.

“Snow-Flakes***”  he announces. Is this beatific? Is this visionary? Maybe it is, he looks that way. He is a strange cat: saying words “doth” and “bosoms”—like Lord Buckley perhaps. If he was translated into Chinese and then back to English, the Beat element would be clear; but even as it is, the words are beautiful, and he lets them slowly stay there that way, “This is the poem of the air.”

The drummer is still slapping the snare with his brushes, as the bearded man at the microphone gestures onward to the band, with a slight roll of his hand. His face changes. The vision’s past, is there a resolution? “Psalm of Life****”  he says.

This other poem is confrontation to everything we’d expect in this club for those who listen here and think about what they heard. “Mournful numbers,” are told on this stage every night, and he’s dissing them right off, and he ceases to pause his words now. The dance of the snowflakes becomes a march of “Let us, then, be up and doing.” What is this? The must be shoveling and stuck car after the beautiful, sorrowful snowfall?

He ambles off as the band riffs for another couple of minutes. What does this strange combination of poems mean? A snow-flake satori in a field, and then a command to earnestly strive. Yes, this Longfellow is a strange cat, even here.

My performance of Longfellow’s “Snow-Flakes”  and part of “A Psalm of Life,”  is available with the gadget below. Of if you are using a reader that doesn’t show the player gadget, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.


*In the course of the long influences that led me to doing this project, a local Iowa rock band of the late Sixties, “Emergency Broadcast System,” would open their 1968 sets with the singer speaking a good portion of Ginsberg’s America  over the band riffing.

**I recorded this on Christmas afternoon, first laying down the drum track and playing my Bass VI, an odd instrument that adds two higher pitched strings to the conventional four-string bass, instead of adding lower strings, the more common variation. I used this higher range to play the repeating, descending riff that occurs throughout the song. I played guitar around this rhythm section and then played the block piano chords. As a last step, I figured if I’m going to impersonate a jazz quartet I might as well go all-in and put in some fake club ambience. Maybe this did come from binging The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel  this month with my wifeor from nights at the old Artists Quarter in St. Paul and listening to Sunday at the Village Vanguard  by the Bill Evans Trio too many times.

***This one goes out to Mary Grace McGeehan of My Year in 1918, who thought of this poem when she thought of Longfellow. It’s one I’d overlooked until she brought it up, and what a graceful lyric it is!

****I performed only about half of this once well-known poem of Longfellow’s here. Several phrases in it were mottos for my grandparents’ generation, and my parent’s generation passed them on to me in occasional speech under a thin varnish of irony to preserve them. As a result, both the poem’s claim that “Life is real! Life is earnest!” and it’s command to “Let us, then, be up and doing” have remained with me.

5 thoughts on “Longfellow Goes Beat

  1. I love this! I’ve never had a song (or half of one) exist because of me before. And I love the idea of Longfellow reciting the poem on a snowy night in Beat-era New York. I’m always trying to imagine myself into snowy scenarios in Christmas-in-summer Cape Town, and this is the perfect setting.

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  2. I read this when you posted it and had meant to comment but got sidetracked with the usual holiday’s hysteria.

    A couple of general comments: First heard Lord Buckley years ago while living in San Francisco and was as they say blown away. “The Naz” is just brilliant. One can hear Robin Williams in Buckley. I played him for some millennials I knew in Baltimore and they shrugged him off as “meh” which I not only put down to generational tides but to the various ways in which people get habituated and disconnected from understanding where the “contemporary” styles originate.

    A friend’s kid – in his mid 20s – took a film class and was the only one to find Chaplin funny where as his contemporaries found him agonizingly slow.

    And so to Ginsberg and The Beats.

    I came within a few weeks of meeting A.G. through a friend who had translated Howl into Arabic – 30 years before “the Arab Spring.”

    Ginsberg died before I got the chance.

    The Beat ghosts haunted North Beach back then (earls 2000s) and one or two people who had been a decade younger than Ginsberg & co were still around but they were pale echoes.

    Ferlinghetti was ancient then and is even older now. Saw him once teetering down the street and just stood there and watched him go.

    It was a time of authentic nostalgia but also unescapable crass marketing and exploitation. A lot of people were still searching for “angel headed hipsters” but what they found were teach goons and cocaine prices for one room “apartments” as S.F. rumbled through yet another boom cycle.

    Anyhow Longfellow like Whitman and Thoreau et al all had some “Beatific” qualities.

    It was the old SF Chronicle and Examiner journalist, Herb Caen who coined the sarcastic “Beatnik” label though he was a champion of the “old” San Francisco.

    Nice work and while you could have anxiety about sounding “Beat” in a silly way, for what it’s worth I don’t think it’s silly or done badly.


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  3. I got to hear Lord Buckley on records, never live due to he and I having wrong birthdates. though there was a local performer who used to do perfectly transcribed and duplicated Buckley stories which I got to see at a local jazz club a few decades back–and the same night I got to see the young Slug from Atmosphere read without a band or backing track.

    Buckley is so extraordinarily musical. Yes, Robin Williams in full flight could get somewhere in the same area. Tom Waits has some routines that are trying for that thing too. I’m not sure if I’d try to copy Buckley if I could, but since I can’t, I don’t have to make that decision.

    I got to see Ginsberg read a couple of times, and even got to meet him for a moment, though I couldn’t think of what to say. I heard him sing Blake with Artie Traum once. And what would I say to Ferlinghetti or any of the Beats? I don’t think I’ve ever said anything that wasn’t indecipherable, stumbling and unessential to any of my heroes. I tell myself I should at least say thanks and shut up, but conversations between strangers stand on air.

    That translation of “Howl” to Arabic sounds like a worthy effort anyway, even if your meeting with Ginsberg didn’t come off. I visited San Francisco once around the turn of the century. I though the layout and geography of the place was still blessed somehow, but Bohemian equilibrium is so hard to sustain. I tried to lead the pair I was traveling with to City Lights Books, but they were unconvinced and I’m not sure how much I missed. I gather San Francisco is now a leading case against the unbalance of “Gentrification.” Over from New York City I hear some are nostalgic for 70s squalor, and for all the harm and reflections of other evils the current wealth structure has, I can’t whole-heartedly join them.

    Longfellow’s been tough for me. He represents the things both my teachers, my heroes and my self were rebelling against. He must have been touched by the Transcendentalists, but many 19th Century Transcendentalists have thoughts that fit right into the mid-20th Century bohemianism of my youth, and Longfellow seems of sterner and much more personally reserved temperament. My current 5 cents please psychoanalysis is that the multiple traumas of his life made him that way, and that if I dig some beneath that surface I can find a more soul and less schoolbook in him.

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    1. A follow up: Your comment about not knowing what to say when meeting a hero rang a bell. Then I remembered reading that William Faulkner was introduced to Einstein while he was teaching at Princeton. Faulkner already prone to lengthy silences spent most of the meeting saying nothing. When asked later why he said mostly nothing, he said: What could I say of interest to such a great man?

      So I guess even “heroes” have heroes to whom it seems pointless to say much of anything.



  4. First, that was supposed to be tech goons not teach goons;-)

    As to the rest (in no special order): You did and did not miss much by not hitting City Lights. The bookstore itself is as I recall (it’s been a while) good and right across from Specs and Vesuvios. (Specs is one of the last old bars set at the end of an alley and has a big framed portrait of Joseph Conrad). Not sure if it’s still there but Black Oak Books used to be near by (may have that wrong?) but it was all consumed by the various tech booms and busts. Studio apartments in so-so areas are now going for over 3k/month. It’s colonization at its finest but going back to the Gold Rush that’s the truth about S.F. I suspect if I went back I’d end up bitterly disappointed.

    I have seen a few retro nostalgia pieces on NYC from the 70s and have the same view as you – but it’s always like that – the “seedy” or sketchy part of town is where the artists live because it’s what they can afford. I lived in two warehouses in Baltimore because they had lots of room and cost little even by Bmore standards but – thieves, psychotics, and both dime bag and larger scale dealers so it was a constant atmosphere of looking over your shoulder. At the second space I used to watch the pitched street battles as kids from “the hood” would come over and throw rocks at people etc. Nothing nostalgic about it but then again trying to find a large space for little money is tilting at windmills or real estate goons;-)

    I understand your point about what is there to say if/when one meets a Ginsberg or some such. Another damned if you do damned if you don’t situation. (had to check but saw that Ferlinghetti will be 100 this March – wonder if the city will do something to mark his centennial?)

    ” got to see Ginsberg read a couple of times, and even got to meet him for a moment, though I couldn’t think of what to say. I heard him sing Blake with Artie Traum once. And what would I say to Ferlinghetti or any of the Beats? I don’t think I’ve ever said anything that wasn’t indecipherable, stumbling and unessential to any of my heroes. I tell myself I should at least say thanks and shut up, but conversations between strangers stand on air.”

    That sums it up perfectly and for what my opinion is worth I’d say that’s the beginning of a great story – you should write more of it. The last line brings it home.

    Re: Waits: I just listened to Small Change again – Waits is one of the best but essentially (I think) flies under the national radar no doubt because the establishment wouldn’t know how to sell him.

    Longfellow: It’s a mysterious thing how some of the increasingly old and gone ones retain something that speaks across time. Twain utterly destroys Fenimore Cooper in a scathing review of Last of the Mohicans but the way you recast Longfellow pumps new blood into him – as nutter supreme Ezra Pound said: Make it new again! Or: “…more soul less schoolbook.”


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