Wild, Groovy Images

Nine Queen Bees, James Liddy, and Patrick Kavanagh among the Beats

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In the mid-1960s, the Irish poet James Liddy visited Franco’s senescent Spain with Michael Hartnett, fellow poet and co-editor of the magazine, Arena. Their hasta la vista in the last editorial declared, ‘we think Spain would be a cheaper drinking life.’ In the poem ‘Reasons for Departure’, fleeing ‘a prison/ Run by elderly bores’, Liddy imagines an alternative:

Rather we will ship ourselves to, say, Spain and be God’s spies

Like Cordelia and Lear in a land where architecture is fit for angels.

They drank, ate fresh fish by the sea in Malaga, listened for the ghost of Lorca. On a trip to Morocco they searched for kief, and partied with some Francoist legionnaires, who sang fascist hymns and cross-dressed.

From Vigo in the spring of 1966, Liddy wrote to an American poet Howard McCord:

At last four walls of one’s own on which the sun dances… A boom town for ten years but still young… old civilisations put to the computer. The old women, still totally dressed in black with a shawl, dazed from the blocks of flat and the refrigerator… Spain is lovely, orange blossoms in the streets, gods in the churches bleeding to death, and assorted and colourful police. The sun always comes out: like clockwork I walk into it and bear my fruit.

McCord sent pornographic images of young women for the Spanish bartenders, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Liddy was gay. A few months later, Liddy asked for McCord’s help in securing a teaching post in the U.S.: ‘Though your letter reeks not at all of a barbarous province, nervously and obliquely on the edge of Empire, I would love to travel there. Because Spain will wait twenty years for me, but America is happening. Also, my poems must be fed.’

And fed by the happening of hippie America they were. Even before Liddy set foot in America, McCord sent him a ‘slightly frightening reading list… it pinpoints the different conditions on two shores of the Atlantic’, a difference which Liddy thought owed a lot to T.S. Eliot ‘becoming an English gentleman.’ Among his Required Reading was McCord’s Tribalist Press anthology of avant-garde Bengali poetry, the Hungryalists, who were influencing the Beats. Patrick Kavanagh, the celebrant priest of Liddy’s parish chapel, McDaid’s pub, also gave the glad-eye to some American poetry, asking drinking buddies who the U.S. Communist poet Walter Lowenfels was, the forfeit being a glass of brandy for Paddy. Arena carried poems on Bobby Kennedy and Liddy’s ‘Song for James Baldwin’, which quoted Allan Ginsberg’s ‘Death to Van Gogh’s Ear’: ‘but I walk, I walk, and the Orient walks with me, and all Africa walks, / and sooner or later North America will walk.’

Liddy increasingly came to resent the lyric tin ear of Irish poets and critics and its ignorance of, or hostility to the New American Poetry: ‘Creely [sic] and Snyder have been getting attacking reviews over here: the usual snob establishment depreciation. They cry for the same old circuits: a place described, muscular verbal straining, and a contrived philosophic statement. Bandits of discursive reasoning, to borrow from Bly.’ He contributed to a Tribal Press booklet that included some of these new voices, including McCord and Albuquerque’s Living Batch Bookstore proprietor, Gus Blaisdell.

By September 1967, Liddy was installed in San Francisco State College, having said goodbye to the ‘flower children’ of McDaid’s (among whom he numbered Paddy Kavanagh). ‘The man who sat at my desk killed himself in August,’ Liddy wrote to McCord, ‘and the Faculty are desperately sweeping up all traces of guilt.’ Liddy formed bonds with talented students, including Bill Silverly and Jim Chapson (who became Liddy’s life partner).

Through Graham Mackintosh’s White Rabbit Press, Liddy came to be part of the Jack Spicer circle and the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance (although he never actually met Spicer, who died in 1965). After news of Kavanagh’s death, Liddy compared the two poets: ‘searching for a reality that is incorporated in the poem but which transcends it as life transcends literature… Unknown or wanting to be unknown, alcoholic, rude, untouchable, despising the Academy, the Anthology.’ Spicer was, if anything, ‘an even more important poet than Kavanagh’, with ‘more dance in him and more erudition for the making of wild, groovy images’.

Liddy was involved with a few little magazines at the time, including a curiosity: the one-shot Nine Queen Bees. Its single issue (“zero” issue) was published in the summer of 1970 from Honolulu (Chapson was born there), probably in-between Liddy’s short-term contracts at places such as Lewis and Clarke College, Oregon, and Denison University, Ohio.

The front cover features a reproduction photograph of a steam engine catastrophically crashed and drooped through and upper floor window of the station. The Editorial Note emphasises the transnational jetlag of the issue:

This magazine has but a fragile hold upon its place in time, but this is more than most. The place is somewhere in California or Ireland, or between, in corrupted holy cities. The time is in the 70’s. Of course 9 Queen Bees begins with the tastes and loves of a small number of poets who consider their tastes and loves to be directly and nobly descended from poets before them. And to allow the play of such taste they do read a certain amount of work by their immediate contemporaries. Drinking and editing themselves further, the poets find a few pieces, included herein, which starve their foolish tastes. This is policy.

They figure that by 1980 the 9 Queen Bees will be dead and underground on Mallorca. Everyday judgement will declare it never to have lived. American poets witlessly reading Poe, Baudelaire, and their own plane tickets. It was said they will never know what hit them.

They continued.

This stylishly evasive réveille precedes an issue that is, as promised, somewhere between Spicer’s California and Kavanagh’s Dublin. Anthony Cronin, like Liddy a recent economic migrant to U.S. colleges, contributes two elegiac pieces on Dublin pub culture and the comatose civil servant scribblers who drink in it, ‘academe, Departments, Bords, and Comhluchts’ (‘Lunchtime Table, Davy Byrne’s’). An exchange of letters between Flaubert and Baudelaire on drugs appears translated by Louis Bolle, and other contributions include ‘For John Wieners’ by Larry Rafferty, ‘The Circuit’ (unsigned prose satires of American reading circuits), and poems by Silverly, Michael Harding, Milton Kessler, Steve Carter, John Allen Ryan, Bill Reisner, Lewis Ellingham, Richard Riordan, George Stanley, John Heath Stubbs, ‘annon’ (a fragment from Pound’s Cantos), and Chuck Cantelon (a pseudonym, surely?).

Liddy gives a trailer for his forthcoming White Rabbit Press poem ‘A Munster Song of Love and War’, with its frank anticlerical queer eroticism drawing on the free-love of Haight-Ashbury to rattle the croziers. The poem implicates Christian morality in colonial haunting:

          “Irishmen make bad lovers,” says Bishop was how

          The newspapers had it and we walked

          In the night’s service of evil to fall in love

                      again sure love was not

                      a word but contagion

          Of the English. Being in love casts out love.

          How else could any of our fuckings be haunted

                      As they are and the lips

                      heard in any poem

                      How should we go to bed again

Among the Americans, John Wieners gives a spry poem ‘Mother in the Morning’ that might have reminded Liddy of Kavanagh’s ‘In Memory of My Mother’: ‘I am afraid of the last / day together, / the things we used to gather / at the seaside,—/ the mighty house, the bride.’

Posthumous Spicer appears, his poem of aridity and renewal, ‘Lament for the Makers’, with its Arnoldian elegy (‘Tabula rasa / a clean table’) even as it demands renewal and confrontation: ‘Ghost the weasel / Unman him… Help / Us sleep as men not barbarians.’

Liddy impishly prints a putative transcript of Patrick Kavanagh’s bad behaviour at a symposium at Northwestern University, ‘Poetry Since Yeats’, April 1965. The participants also included Thomas Kinsella, Stephen Spender, and W.D. Snodgrass. Kavanagh scandalised everyone by declaring Robert Lowell, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn, Charles Tomlinson ‘all dead. And dying.’ Only the Beats, Henry Miller, and George Barker are alive. By printing the transcript, alongside so much San Francisco new poetry, Liddy is deliberately mythmaking—not in the sense of fabrication or falsehood, but in trying to invent a new itinerary and new lines of influence, a Beat Kavanagh. It was a myth that he would probe time and time again, and attempt to inculcate among younger Irish poets of a slightly different kidney (see his 1971 New Writer’s Press Versheet, ‘Homage to Patrick Kavanagh’, published by Trevor Joyce, which takes aim at the “poetry Bosses” from a Beat perspective).

Leland Bardwell compounds the lèse majeste of Nine Queen Bees in her poem ‘Thomas Kinsella, Lecturer and Poet’:

          Of all the bad versifiers

          sent to extend

          the ambassadorial boundaries

          of Ireland’s declining empire,

          we send here no oriole,

          bright-feathered flyer

          lonely in migrancy;

          the damper echelons

          of the establishment

          give prizes for caution;

          in that wilderness

          The dead man wins.

In addition to two poems, a young Paul Durcan contributes a letter about his attempts to breathe life into his new magazine (Two Rivers), and his dissatisfaction with ‘Dublingrad’ and desire to ‘walk off over the hill forever into—but where, into where, a mayoralty of some new and passionate town with distance for pay?’

What else was Two Rivers but such a ‘new and passionate town’, or Michael Smith’s Lace Curtain (with Liddy once again acting as Irish agent for avant-garde America)? And what else was the Hawaiian-Irish Nine Queen Bees? Whose Editorial postscript closes its fifty-eight pages with another Zen squib, about Brendan Kenneally’s 1970 Penguin anthology that ‘it will be centred around [the poetry establishment] and their master Yeats’:

But then does it matter? It is an anthology brought out by a commercial publisher… The gnostic… comes to your desert to tell you that if you make up your mind to it you can write poetry, lots of it.