January 13th, 2009
Can I take you back a few weeks to a telephone conversation we had? I'd rung you after watching the particularly inspiring Lakes District episode of Griff Rhys-Jones' Mountains BBC-tv series. Griff was in top form --he's literary, intelligent, very amusing & enviably fit! He emulated Coleridge's leaps down precipices, albeit assisted by ropes & pulleys & professional climbers --one certainly wasnt going to follow him in that --and he walked in the footsteps of one of your (I almost say 'holy') men, Alfred Wainwright. It was at that point --my head full of the Romantic poets & Wainwright's pleasant & seemingly accessible walking trails --that the question presented itself : What is the British context for the 'Dharma Bum'? The immediate answer might be : poetry, walking (hills, moors, woods, coasts), art, pottery & craft, photography, traditional & contemporary religious practice... You responded with a laugh : That's my life you're describing (health & opportunity permitting)!
Staying with this British angle, a word around & about Jim Burns, inspired not so much by his book, Beats, Bohemians and Intellectuals (edited & introduced by John Freeman, Trent Editions, UK, 2000), but what I hoped it contained when i returned to it this past winter. Old amigo John Freeman's introduction sets the scene, accurately claiming that "Burns' criticism is a one-man crusade against the star system in literature", since "he is interested in the whole picture, to which the bit players and technical staff also make essential contributions." It's a "crusade on behalf of the forgotten" Freeman says --or those who'd be forgotten were it not for the certain kind of literature in which Kerouac's project, for example, is also found.
I too feel a nostalgia for that era of American Bohemians & progressive writers of whom Burns is so fond. It was a model of creative non-conformity & the confluence of life & art. The time I encountered it in my reading I was similarly defined. I'm nostalgic because I've changed/life's changed... I remember some years ago confiding to Alan Pose that to a great extent I'd "lost History" because of massive & cumulative disenchantment with left-wing politics, but experiencing the concerts of Martin Carthy & The Watersons, & Roy Bailey & others, in the'90s had returned History to me. At least initially (--recall exploding in disbelief last year at a Brunswick Folk Festival concert when Alistair Hewlett invoked Hugo Chavez as first of the 21stCentury's saviours; Dave Swarbrick continued tuning his fiddle)... Raising roses out of the rubble (a la Allen Ginsberg's Sunflower Sutra?!) is one, & an abiding, thing, but rabble-rousing is too much of the blood & fury of the something-else I no longer believe.
You'll recognize some of my early favourites in Jim Burns' roll-call --Erskine Caldwell for example, Kenneth Patchen, & the writers identified with 1920s Greenwich village. And then there are the Beats themselves --particularly John Montgomery & Lew Welch, & Seymour Krim as a devoted commentator. At one time many of us drew from the same source. There's a larger story here about life in the English provinces predisposing one to an American counter-culture which had, one felt, reacted to a similar impoverishment & saved its soul. However, the wheel turns.
It was an article Alan pose showed me, by Iain Sinclair (Man in a MacIntosh, published in The Guardian, 30-8-08), essentially discussing forgotten English novelists --Londoners of course; Sinclair's eternal & apparently infinite patch --the import of which, at least for me, is the constant fecundity of the local and the necessity to know & celebrate its particulars & exemplars. England, it seems to me --I remember exclaiming to Alan --owns a cultural density enabling constant rediscovery & reevaluation of people & their scenes & times. Much more than in Melbourne, I said. But no sooner made the claim than retracted it --: even with the thinner history of settler Australia, forgetfulness is endemic! I'd begun my own reclamation project in the 1980s, publishing my 1960s diaries & notes concerning La Mama & the emerging new poetry scene, and then pushing back to the '50s & '40s for roots, and intending then to bring the whole thing back to the present. But I shelved it all the moment I stopped producing H/EAR magazine in 1985. (I've been thinking of re-asembling it within the magazine space of my blog recently --the blog might now be the best medium for my concept of the 'active archive'.)
And so, returning to Beats, Bohemians and Intellectuals, I was disappointed not to find anything local. Jim Burns says that his 1967 article, The American Influence, "has dated in the sense that some of the facts have changed." --but he doesnt repudiate his original statement : "I suppose I am, in a way, an exile in my own country. (...) In fact, I can't honestly say I feel very much part of English life in general. I'm probably in a position similar to the American expatriates in paris in the 1920s, moving around the areas i know best, ignored by most of the locals, and in touch with a few literary acquaintances by mail, and a few local friends because of our interest in jazz and drink." What I hoped I'd find in Burns' collection was something else on British '50s & '60s predecessors --though, predecessors of whom & what? Without the dharma, who & what are these (notional) bums?!
It's forty-odd years since the Sixties, and boxed sets to prove it! And there are fiftieth anniversary editions of the seminal Beats, not to mention "The Original Scroll", before us. Are Griff's mountains --Lakes District, Wales, Scotland --the closest our English selves will get to Taoist & Buddhist Asia, not to mention the Beats' Tamalpais & etc?
Happy New Year!
19 April-16 July,'09
I'm floored by your question in the last letter and by my life's current events. To touch upon the latter : earlier this year it was realized that Mum had Alzheimer's. Her short-term memory-loss impacts on life here sharply. In some ways we have a normal life given she's coming up 85, but to cap it off she's had a fall in town and fractured her hip. Looks like she'll be in hospital quite a while. Anyway, it's some respite for me to write if I can get into gear.
As to your question -- "What is the British context for the Dharma Bums?" -- hmmm? To me Dharma Bums seems an essentially American trait. Americans are so 'open'. They 'let go' and 'go for it'. Put their all into things. Not that the British don't. They're eccentrics, their trait is eccentricity -- people of the ilk of Griff Rhys-Jones whom you mention. But they don't seem able to accommodate the spiritual. That is, the artists don't. Dharma Bum for me says 'Buddhist', 'artist', 'Bohemian', 'poet', 'free spirit'... a merging of all these. I don't aspire to be an English Dharma Bum! Have never felt English English. As an Egyptian said to Mum, "But you're not Egyptian Egyptian." Anyway, the British don't do it for me. Just isolated pockets here and there I relate to. But as I said, I'm not English English. Am I labouring the point?
Poetry : I look to Chinese, Japanese and American models. Jazz : Americans (I mean, Courtney Pine, for instance, is not a great musician -- innovative but not great). And there's no U.K. Buddhist magazine with the profile of Tricycle, Buddha Dharma or Shambala Sun, tho' I 'enjoy' the Journal of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. But that is a dedicated Soto Zen publication.
There is no hint of Dharma Bummery in Rhys-Jones or his Mountains t.v. series, though I do like it. And I've been watching Julia Bradbury in the footsteps of Alfred Wainwright (A. W.). I watch all the walking programmes. I don't think Dharma Bum comes into it. One of two Brits I have regard for and makes me think 'Dharma Bum' is Bill Wyatt. (I don't know if Bill Wyatt and Ken Jones relate to being Dharma Dums. Both are poets and Buddhists.) Wyatt's latest is Gleamings from the Throssel's Nest (Longread Publishing, 2005). 'Throssel's Nest' refers to Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey up in Northumberland, where Wyatt goes for retreats. Initially Jiya Kennett forsook her native England for the U.S. There was antipathy from the British Buddhist establishment on her return from Japan. The U.S., as usual, was more accommodating.
The other, Ken Jones, I'm tempted to also call a Dharma Bum, but wonder if he's more the 'Pilgrim Fox' of his self-styled persona? See Pilgrim Foxes : Haiku & Haiku Prose by Ken Jones, James Norton & Sean O'Connor, published by Pilgrim Press, 2001. From the blurb, "These three writers are on a spiritual quest. They are foxy pilgrims. But fox is a trickster, a shape-shifter. And this quest about how to make sense -- or nonsense -- of our lives is far from straightforward." So, it is a spiritual quest not dissimilar to being a Dharma Bum. But I don't think they identify with what is essentially an American manifestation. Jones is the pick of the three. Also, his Stallion's Crag : Haiku & Haibun (Iron Press, 2003), and Arrows of Stones : Haibun (British Haiku Society, 2002) are top notch. Jones is well known and respected on the British Buddhist scene, and widely published.
Beyond these two I haven't found anything to get excited about in respect of Dharma Bums in Britain. In any case, activity is all very well, but what about mind? Walking in itself doesn't make a Dharma Bum. As Arthur Braverman writes, "Most of the foreigners in Kyoto in the early Seventies were wanderers and bearers of an exciting new consciousness. we would strike up conversation with each other on trains or in coffee-shops. These people don't look like dharma bums. But there again, neither do I. Are they exchange students, businessmen, or simply tourists?" (Living and Dying in Zazen, Weatherhill, 2003.)
On the bus back from Dorchester hospital this afternoon, after visiting Mum, I started reading A Blue Hand by Deborah Baker (Penguin, 2009). It's "The Tragicomic, Mind-Altering Odyssey of Allen Ginsberg, a Holy Fool, a Rebel Muse, a Dharma Bum and His Prickly Bride in India." This is the real deal for me! The Americans have it!
So, who's to know? Dharma Bum aint visible in U.K., but things do go on.
Your aspiring Dharma Bum of a brother,