From my feature spot at First Wednesday Formal, Albany, CA, April 2.
FROM SONGS OF INNOCENCE
‘Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two, in red and blue and green,
Grey headed beadles walk’d before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames’ waters flow.
Oh what a multitude they seem’d, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.
Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of Heaven among.
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor;
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.
FROM SONGS OF EXPERIENCE
Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!
And their sun does never shine,
And their fields are bleak and bare,
And their ways are filled with thorns:
It is eternal winter there.
For where’er the sun does shine,
And where’er the rain does fall,
Babes should never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.
Seven Towers has issued Huncke as an e book! For $5 or €4 you can have the latest version of the poem with the uplifted lines, the shiny round of copy editing, and the crispest representation of Paul Weingarten’s fine art illustration. Visit Seven Towers and get a PDF today!
George Witte’s intorduction at Huncke’s launch last summer (Nightingale Lounge, Greenwich Village):
I work in book publishing, and in that capacity have attended many a hopeful, but painful launch event at chain and independent bookstores around New York. If it’s sunny, no one will come: too nice. If it’s raining, no one will come: too gloomy. And if it’s snowing, no one will come: too much fun to be had outside. But I think we’ve discovered the key to a successful book party: if it’s 100 degrees, and there’s beer, and the book being launched is an epic poem, they’ll come.
So I’d like to welcome and thank you for joining the Nightingale Lounge to celebrate the publication of Rick Mullin’s book length poem, Huncke. There are several things to celebrate this evening before Rick gets up to read.
First, ambition. I can’t think of the last time I read a book length narrative poem. Most poets just don’t—or can’t—write one, and to summon the power of concentration and create enough drama to sustain a long poem is very difficult.
Second, let’s drink to formal writing. Huncke is constructed in 12 cantos, composed in iambic lines of ottava rima, which is stanzas of eight lines each, with the rhyme scheme abababcc—the same form used by Lord Byron to write Don Juan. The advantage of this form is twofold: it accommodates dramatic narrative, because the stanzas are long enough to do the work of storytelling—character, action, plot twists, dialogue, and so on. And, that closing rhyme—the cc at the end of each stanza—lends itself to twists, punch lines, and surprising transitions to whatever comes next. So when Rick reads from the poem, listen for the rhymes.
Finally, the subject. Some of you here tonight will know who Herbert Huncke is, and perhaps knew him personally. For those of you who don’t, here’s a quick introduction. Herbert Huncke was many things: a writer, a heroin addict, a drifter, a felon, a celebrated storyteller in conversation, a Merchant Marine, the so called “Mayor of 42nd Street” when it was a much different place than it is today, a subject featured by Dr. Alfred Kinsey for his landmark Report on the sexual practices of Americans, and a kind of muse, mascot, object of professional interest, acquaintance, friend, and sometimes fall guy for more famous writers, including William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, all of whom portrayed him in their most famous works. He is sometimes credited with first using the word “beat” to describe his wayward life, and that word was picked up by Kerouac to define the rootlessness of a generation.
Rick Mullin’s poem Huncke is not a biographical account of Herbert Huncke’s life. It’s a much grander, bigger enterprise, a wide-ranging exploration of American history, politics, pop culture, and the influence of the Beats, which uses a 2009 memorial tribute to Herbert Huncke as its organizing structure. Yes, there are walk-ons from Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac, along with Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie and other musicians that Huncke knew. But we also meet George Washington and other founding fathers at the pivotal point in the Revolutionary War, when all would be lost or, perhaps, won. Mickey Mouse appears throughout the poem as an antic but somewhat menacing prankster, along with his sidekick, Rudy Giuliani, who spends most of the poem in drag, adjusting his garters, tugging on his dress, and tucking money into his bra. And there is a big screen panorama of scenes and allusions, shifting between history, music, movies, cartoons, paintings, and books, from the Midwest to New York’s Bowery to the beach at Normandy, from jazz clubs in the 1930s and 40s to bars like this one, today, where we’ve gathered to listen to an utterly-singular poem.
Please join me in welcoming Rick Mullin.
George Witte, the author of the poetry volumes The Apparitioners (Three Rail Press, 2005) and Deniability (Orchises Press in 2009), is editor-in-chief of St. Martin’s Press in New York
Huncke is now available at the Raconteur Bookshop, 314 Main Street, Metuchen, NJ. It is a classic book store and a great venue for the arts in central New Jersey.
On my recent trip to the other birthplace of Beat literature, I got Huncke on a shelf where it belongs: At The Beat Museum. Jerry, who runs the place, does so out of a loadstone of love. Please, on your next trip to San Francisco, visit The Beat Museum for an informative stroll through a great heritage.
My book, Huncke, has been reviewed by Paul Christian Stevens in the latest issue of The Shit Creek Review. A scholarly essay, and I think he really “gets it”! Thanks in perpetuity to Paul and the Shit Creek editorial board.
Ten years ago, or so, I visited Paul at his studio. We painted each other. It went fairly well, much better than when we’d gone out together to paint landscapes. On those occasions, Paul ended up chasing me through the woods at palette-knife-point for watching over his shoulder, talking, or making crumbs. On this occasion, I painted him first. My picture is the one on the bottom, a small oil, 12″ by 9″. Painting it exhausted me. He painted his larger oil of me after lunch, and I kept falling asleep on him as I sat. Thus the afternoon ended in tears, but with two decent paintings. Paul’s dealer bought mine at a group show at which Paul, dealer, and I exhibited with Andrey Tamarchenko in Phlladelphia. Paul’s painting illustrates my poem “The Marquis” at Soundzine.
The New Jersey “Launch” went very well last night. Paul Weingarten (left above) honored me and “my kind” with a gracious introduction, and he had the painting from the cover and four of the original drawings that illustrate Huncke on hand.
Having now read the entire book at one venue or another, I am bringing the “New Book Tour” to a close. I want to thank those of you who have attended readings—some of you more than one—for your support. And for those with me in spirit at these events, thanks also.
My gratitude to The Nightingale Lounge, Paul Nash and Denise LaNeve of the North Jersey Poetry Series, Kat Georges of the Cornelia Street Cafe’s Son of Pony reading, Ray Brown of the Frenchtown Book Launch event, and the Montclair Public Library for giving me spotlights.
Several YouTube clips of Huncke readings, including a set from last night’s performance, can be found here. And if you dig deep in my YouTube collection, you will find clips of John J. Trause, R. Nemo Hill, Susanna Rich, Quincy Lehr, and David Katz.
Thanks, of course, to Seven Towers.
Again, thanks for your support.