sexta-feira, 23 de dezembro de 2022

RION LEVY | Peter Orlovsky: The Surrealist Beat Poet


I - Introduction

In 1957, Peter Orlovsky wrote the lines “Songs burst from my breast, all my crying stops, mistory fills the air … / I draw on paper and I feel I am two again. I want everybody to talk to me” (Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs). This “Frist Poem” establishes the mystery of Orlovsky; a poet who became an underground legend simultaneously disregarded by scholars and Beat readers. Although peers and spectators knew him for his independence and creative individuality, his lifelong relationship with Allen Ginsberg poses problems: in the appreciation of his work, Ginsberg receives most of the credit. [1] Although Ginsberg was undoubtedly important in Orlovsky’s development as a poet, the quality and volume of his artistic work deserves study and acclaim on its own.

Peter Orlovsky drew from personal inspirations beyond those of the Beat circle that led to his work being of a uniquely surrealistic Beat sound. He wrote under the influences of Allen Ginsberg’s circle as well as the French Surrealists to the point that his verse reflects the two styles greatly. [2] For a comprehensive understanding of Orlovsky’s work as different and original, both Beat and Surrealist influences require examination. The understanding that the Beat Generation only consists of the original East Coast members, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Herbert Huncke, [3] has also worked against appreciation of Orlovsky’s poetry, because it limits the Generation to these authors’ early writings. A more holistic understanding, which would admit Orlovsky as a Beat, suggests the Beat Movement was the literary uprise that led up to, and exploded after, the Six Gallery reading in October of 1955 in San Francisco. Although he did not speak, Orlovsky attended the reading and spent the rest of his life working with these poets (Schumacher; Morgan, A Life in Words). He was an active member, through publications, teaching, and socialization within the generation. Further, Orlovsky certainly wrote with Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” mantra [4] that often characterizes Beat writing. [5] There is no question that he was certainly a Beat poet.

On the other hand, investigation into Orlovsky’s life also demonstrates a keen interest in Surrealism and the surrealistic that extends beyond most other Beat poets, and this is where he differs. The connection between Surrealism and the Beat Movement has long been understood yet there exists very little critical study of it. Scholars consider Philip Lamantia the Surrealist Beat Poet, in part due to his close connections with some of the core French Surrealists. [6] Although scholars agree with the claim that Lamantia was a Surrealist, Ann Charter’s declaration that “Lamantia is the only American poet of his generation to embrace fully the discoveries of surrealism” (The Portable Beat Reader) neglects the realities of many Beat writers’ works, including Orlovsky’s. When compared theoretically, Surrealist and Beat poetic styles share similarities. Both disregard common and rigid poetic and grammatical structures, and both attempt to derive imprudently calculated meaningful word combinations. Further, the purpose behind both the Surrealist and Beat movements are similar: they seek a means for social change through the overt defiance of the artistic status-quo. Orlovsky’s poetry demonstrates these characteristics but with an identifiably personal style that diverges from the presence of these techniques in the works of Ginsberg and other Beats.

Therefore, the problem of Orlovsky is threefold. First, he was a Beat poet who diverged from the standard Beat style but not to the extent that he was of a different school. Rather, he wrote his own version of Beat poetry that overwhelmingly resembles the Surrealists and the surrealistic. Second, unlike Philip Lamantia, Orlovsky cannot claim the official title of the hybrid Surrealist Beat Poet. Lamantia was an accepted member of the French Surrealists when they worked in New York in the 1940s (Lamantia xxvii) and he worked closely with and as a Surrealist poet and a Beat poet. By comparison, the interest and realization of Surrealist poetry in Orlovsky’s work is in response to Surrealist poets mainly outside of the core French group. Instead, Orlovsky more appropriately deserves the title of a surrealistic Beat poet or surreal Beat poet. Third, scholars historically attributed Allen Ginsberg credit for Orlovsky’s writing which undermines the appreciation for the non-Beat elements in Orlovsky’s poetry. He produced writing of a very different tone and style to Ginsberg; the two poets overlap in their manifestations of Beat but differ through Orlovsky’s implementation of the surreal. Thus, I propose to analyze Peter Orlovsky as a surrealist Beat poet who wrote in a different context and style to Philip Lamantia but who nonetheless drew from both poetic disciplines. I wish to address Orlovsky as a Beat poet who wrote in his own regard and who produced art of a calibre worthy of study to his own acclaim.


I.I The Surrealists

The French Surrealist group was comprised of André Breton and his followers, Paul Èluard, René Crevel, Antonin Artaud, et cetera, who worked between the late 1910s and the 1930s. Earlier poets, such as Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, and Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote in “Pre-Surrealist” styles, greatly inspired Breton’s circle. Breton then wrote two Manifestos of Surrealism (1924, 1930) that differ in their representations of Surrealism, but nonetheless demonstrate its philosophical evolution. In his First Manifesto, Breton proposes that Surrealism is a “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express - verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner - the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from aesthetic or moral preoccupation” (First Manifesto of Surrealism). I follow this description of Surrealism for my analysis on Peter Orlovsky. The second manifesto adopts a heavier political motivation that Orlovsky does not reflect in his published poetry nor in his intimate journals. [7] Resultingly, the understanding of Surrealism I use comes from the first manifesto and Surrealist poetry. Surrealism is a practice that removes the human inclination to second-guess, construct, and consider. Surrealist poetry rests on intuition and initial ideas; it is the transcription of what lies just beyond conscious thought.

An easy trap to fall into is to assess Surrealism from a series of anticipated codes. Codification, because of the very nature of the Surrealists, is tricky and variations occur widely between members of Breton’s inner circle. Michael Benedikt manages to identify a set of generalized qualities that are often present in Surrealist poems and that prove helpful for analysis. Benedikt summarizes that in Surrealism, “Images are apt to be extremely disparate, … the poem reflects the fact that the mind often operates in sudden associative leaps” (The Poetry of Surrealism xx-xxi). Consider, for example, “Poet of the Black” by Antonin Artuad where he writes


bitter poet, life’s ended for you,

the entire town’s afire

the sky’s being drained away by the rain

and your pen goes gnawing away at the heart of life. (Artaud in The Poetry of Surrealism)


These four lines jump from a poet to a fire, the sky, and back to the poet and their writing. Artaud draws the poem from the micro of the poet outwards towards the macro of the sky and back to an even smaller focus in words such as “pen.” Orlovsky most obviously plays with this Surrealist sort of jumping of frames, ideas, and images throughout his poetry, for example in “One Line Scrapbook” where “The world has a heart. / The moon is a bong on the drum of the earth / A fat-eyed mammoth, happey am I” (“Poems”). Here he employs the Surrealist tendency towards fast, successive leaps between images and ideas. Although the world and the moon are two related images, the jump to a mammoth is dramatic, jarring and resonant with Surrealist imagery.

Even though Surrealist images are easily detectable, they are hardly the only characteristic of Surrealist poetry. Benedikt continues his analysis as he suggests that in Surrealist writing, “the usual tonal distinctions do not apply and are often actively subverted … [and] the ideal of ‘spoken thought’ is present, [using] the diction leaning toward the everyday”. The Surrealist attributes of tone and diction are more difficult to demonstrate with original Surrealist poems given the changes a poem undergoes in translation. French possesses significantly more opportunities for inflection than English and it uses indications of formality more significantly. In English, tonal and lexicographic characteristics of Surrealism manifest differently than in French: the use of slang words, short forms, improper and colloquial grammar are all manners in which English-language Surrealist poems play with tone. Orlovsky demonstrates the Surrealist subversion of tonal normalities when he writes, “there is another door & another door I open to go in / & yet another door & the room gets smaller / each time I open another door –” (“Dear Allen: Ship Will Land Jan 23, 1958–” “Poems”). His repetition of the word “another” and the ampersand evoke a sense of accelerated and excited speech characteristic of Surrealist writing.

Benedikt also asserts a more difficult to detect quality of Surrealist poetry: it asserts that “the existing [cultural] reality is fundamentally ‘out of tune’ with thought”. Surrealist poetry combats against the conventional, societally appreciated understanding of reality. Examples include Paul Eluard’s question “Are we close to or far from our consciousness” (From “Our Movements” in The Poetry of Surrealism) and Pierre Reverdy’s observation that “All those seen from behind who were moving away singing … They are the first to arrive and will not go away” (“Endless Journeys” in The Poetry of Surrealism). The Surrealists feel preoccupied with the individual’s position in the cultural reality. These poets offer both an outsider’s perspective on and a paranoid testimony from within the world. Eluard concerns himself with both his own and collective consciousness while Reverdy observes the cyclical nature of the mass’s lives. These passages are only two examples of the Surrealist’s much grander concern but they parallel Orlovsky’s concerns such as whether: “will I recognize / New York even” (“Poems”) after it has grown and changed in his absence.

Lastly, for Surrealists, “the whole notion of ‘genre’ is virtually irrelevant”. Surrealism tends to subvert traditional styles of poetry and Surrealists write in, and demonstrate, their colloquial and everyday thoughts. However, with their colloquiality, they also combine extreme, unrelated, and beyond-human images. Of course, every Surrealist poet realizes the surreal differently and this adds to the problem of genre within the school. Each of Benedikt’s observations may not be present in a given poem or even within the works of a given Surrealist poet. Rather, Benedikt’s list is a set of Surrealism’s characteristics that are helpful for identifying surreal writing and prove beneficial in the analysis of Orlovsky’s poetry as surrealistic.


I.II The Beats

Similar to Surrealist poetry, Beat poetry is difficult to codify. Attempts to codify it can delegitimize the work of recognized Beat poets because they wrote in various manners that often disregard the codes they previously established. Luckily, Ginsberg helps solidify a base code when he describes “Beat” as “not so much protest but a declaration of unconditioned mind beyond protest, beyond resentment, beyond loser, beyond winner,… a declaration of unconditioned mind, a visionary declaration, a declaration of unworldly love that has no hope for the world and cannot change the world to its desire”. To be Beat is to feel preoccupied with the horrors of the world and to still have and express profound love for it. Consider, for example, Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra” when he writes, “Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? /… You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower! /… we’re not our dread bleak imageless locomotive, we’re all beautiful golden sunflowers inside” (Howl and other poems). Ginsberg recognizes the sorrowful state of the sunflower and questions it before he expresses the sadness of seeing itself as the old locomotive. This passage demonstrates the Beat poets’ desire to acknowledge despair through lenses of love and awe.

Beat poets often express their dual perception of the terrible and wonderful of the world through Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” mantra: a technique where a poet attempts to express what they can without self-censorship, or hyper-critical construction. They see how the world beats down. As a result, Beat poets tend to situate themselves in the spontaneous actual: images of the real world with eccentric twists. Overall, the Beatific is more focused on reality than surreality, but often draws on Surrealist images for effect. The “unconditioned mind” allows for the poet’s “first thought” to guide them in their use of images. For the Beat poets, their intuition is important. Their rejection of censorship mirrors Breton’s psychic automatism with the added focus on the weight of the world rather than the poets inherent disconnect from it. [8] Orlovsky acknowledges his use of this technique in “How I Write Poems and Who I Learned From” when he says, “Ginsberg & Kerouac [taught me] extended speech-word flow” (“Poems”). In this sense, Orlovsky indicates that he uses Ginsberg and Kerouac’s automatic writing technique wherein he follows an uninhibited oral flow in his writing.

In a “biographical resume” dated 1957, Jack Kerouac also emphasizes that “it’s not a question of the merit of art, but a question of spontaneity and sincerity and joy I say. I would like everybody in the world to tell his full life confession and tell it HIS OWN WAY… instead of the hesitations and cavilings of ‘men of letters’ with blear faces who only alter words that the Angel brought them” (Kerouac). Similar to Ginsberg, Kerouac suggests Beat writing expresses what a writer deems earnest without worrying about reaching a certain, critical quality. Orlovsky’s poems are not polished since he often wrote with improper grammar and spelling, but his writing is true to his voice. [9] In Beat Poetry, tone, diction, and form tend to be unrestricted and characteristic of speech, but individual Beat poets possess personal sounds just as every person speaks in their own register. For example, Frank O’Hara sounds remarkably different in “Meditations in an Emergency” when he says, “All I want is boundless love” (“Why I Am Not a Painter”) from Orlovsky when he says, “Oh Im in love w/ you, till I die –” (“Poems”). Where O’Hara’s register is higher but casual, Orlovsky’s is strictly oral and informal even though both lines express a similar sentiment. Both of these lines possess an oral quality, but their styles drastically change their sound even though they are both Beat. Orlovsky’s eccentricity demonstrates how closely he follows Kerouac’s assertion that Beat poetry ought to follow the poet’s own voice.

This overall set of differences between the Beats and the Surrealists is one of the points where Orlovsky differs from the Beats: he plays with both the realistic and the Surreal in his imagery, technique, and style. Primarily, he uses Surreal imagery to describe the real and imagery of the real to describe the Surreal; the two realities coexist in much of his poetry. He plays with both Beat and Surrealist codes and drives his poetry further away from the codified Beat centre than Ginsberg does. But Orlovsky’s employment of the Surreal evolved throughout his career. His early poems possess a reserved Surrealist nature that he develops cautiously before his middle period where this nature dominates. His middle period is his most refined in his combination of the Surreal and the Beat. By contrast, his final period becomes his most juvenile as he plays with absurd images and develops an obsession with small-scale agriculture.

As a result of his evolution, I assess Orlovsky chronologically in this essay, primarily to demonstrate his development as a poet but also to assess how his Surrealist and Beat tendencies fluctuate over his two active decades. Separate study into these three periods helps to illustrate how the Beat and surrealistic elements fluctuate in Orlovsky’s work. This chronological approach helps to contextualize his poems within the greater framework of his life, his extensive travels, experimentation with drugs and sobriety, and battles with mental illness. His biographic story offers significant insight into his latter period but also helps to offer explanations for his dramatic growth between his early and middle periods.


II – Early Poems

Peter Orlovsky began to write journals as early as the summer of 1954 (Morgan, A Life in Words), only a few months after his discharge from the United States military. He met Allen Ginsberg the same December and the pair moved in together a few weeks later. Shortly thereafter, in February of 1955, Orlovsky wrote in his journal “Thought of writing my diaries to form a book – A Book of Peter’s Diaries” (“Life in Words”). Already, after only a few months of writing, Orlovsky demonstrated in his desire to write and to be read in his private writings. Then, in November of 1956, Orlovsky and Ginsberg began their travels together, first to Mexico City, and later to Tangiers (Morgan, A Life in Words; Schumacher). Orlovsky composed snippets of poetry and poetic prose in his journal, and he catalogued his journeys semi-consistently. Seven months into their travels, Orlovsky composed the first poem he would later publish. While abroad, he wrote the seven poems that open his only anthology, Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs. Although they realize the Surrealist characteristics that Benedikt lists, these poems do so to a lesser and comparatively shallower extent than those he writes after his return to the United States. [10]

During his early travels with Ginsberg in Europe, Orlovsky also wrote visions of a few pre-Surrealists. In September of 1957, he wrote “Rimbaud must of walked this road a few times” (“Life in Words”) in his journal. Later, in November, “Walking with Allen, went to Baudelaire’s grave – but vampires above his head – he looks like mummy laying there – I put a red flower by his cock between his legs” (“Life in Words”). He would go on to write his famous “Frist Poem” the next day (“Life in Words”). These small entries on the forefathers of Surrealism demonstrate how some of the pre-Surrealists influenced Orlovsky as they did the French Surrealists, albeit distinctly due to their different circumstances. These two entries are revealing; a common misconception about Orlovsky is that he was unintelligent. His mother Kate forced him to drop out during his final year of high school to work (Morgan, A Life in Words) and he misspelled words consistently. [11] Orlovsky’s early journals show that he was well-read and held an interest in poetry beyond the work of his contemporaries. They also demonstrate his quirkiness and original creativity, particularly through his use of images surrounding Baudelaire’s grave. This early period of Orlovsky is notably full of experimentation as he establishes his voice as his own.

In November of 1957, Orlovsky composed his “Frist Poem” in Paris. The title is misleading: the poem is only first in his anthology because of the title. A few poems he composed earlier that year appear after this poem. [12] Orlovsky riddles “Frist Poem” with Surrealist images as he begins with


A rainbow comes pouring into my window, I am electrified.

Songs burst from my breast, all my crying stops, mistory fills the air.

I look for my shues under my bed.

A fat colored woman becomes my mother.

I have no false teethe yet. Suddenly ten children sit on my lap.

I grow a beard in one day.

I drink a hole bottle of wine with my eyes shut.

I draw on paper and I feel I am two again. I want everybody to talk to me. (“Poems”)


Immediately, he introduces fractured ideas that create a peculiar and unreal image that manages to work coherently. He creates a world disconnected from the real one. He does not evoke fear but instead, through the colours from the rainbows and the voice that sings, he makes the scene feel eerily cheery. The light-hearted sentiment continues as people appear in an instant and he grows aware of his body. He writes from wonderland.

The poem then shifts focus as the world before him changes:


I use the typewritter as my pillow.

A spoon becomes a fork before my eyes.…

My dreams lifted me right out of bed.

I dreamt I jumped the nozzle of a fun to fight out with a bullet.

I met Kafka and he jumped over a building to get away from me.

My body turned into sugar, poured into tea I found the meaning of life (“Poems”).


He jumps into a realm of words and ideas, where, as in the world of dreams, one can change everything into anything else instantly. But through words, he proclaims to have found the meaning of life emptily; he finds it but does not share it, for he has only found it in this surreal world he plays in. He does not share the meaning of life he claims to find and therefore suggests it is only real to him.

The poem then ends with him at street level with, “Nobody around, I piss anywhere. / My Gabriel horns, my Gabriel horns: unfold cheerfulies my gay jubilation” (“Poems”). He contrasts his discovery of the meaning of life with his anticipation for the end of it. With the end of the poem that contains and facilitates it, the meaning must now come to an end as well. His public and shameless urination appears to be an act of rebellion against the authoritative structures not at play in this surreal world of his poem. He symbolically extinguishes both his stream of ideas and his excitement in the poem-writing process. The poem is both an ode to poetry writing and a declaration of its difficulty. This introduction to his poems is eccentric and dramatic but primarily plays with the surreal free association of images in a “first thought, best thought” presentation. He introduces numerous characters and images he never revisits and takes the reader on a journey from the window, to the room, to the street. Although many of the images appear disconnected, the mosaic he creates of these real images coupled with the impossible, almost backwards images, creates this coherent, other world. The poem is Beat in its fast-paced rhythm as it is surreal in its presentation of ideas and images. This “Frist Poem” offers a hint at the way Orlovsky combines the two schools originally as he develops his skillset.

Right after he composed “Frist Poem” Orlovsky wrote his “Second Poem.” It begins in “Morning again” (“Poems”) and like in his “Frist Poem” “Second Poem” plays with rapid and disconnected images. The first series of sporadic images begins on line 7 when he writes “A nock on the door, a cat walks in, behind her the Zoo’s baby elephant demanding fresh pancakes—I cant stand these hallucinations aney more” (“Poems”). Although this line has the potential to be profoundly surrealist, after he changes his focus from the door, to a cat, to the elephant who wants pancakes, he shatters his readers suspension of disbelief when he acknowledges that they are mere hallucinations. He describes the surreal sequence as real, because to him, it is. When he states that they are figments of his mind, Orlovsky changes the reality frame from these surreal images, to the one where only he experiences them.

Even though Orlovsky constructs and destroys the surrealist nature in his poem through images, the poem continues to possess other surrealist qualities. Towards the end of “Second Poem” he refocuses his attention to the tasks of his morning. He says,


Before the mirror I look like a sahara desert gost,

or on the bed I resemble a crying mummey hollering for air,

or on the tabol I feel like Napoleon.

But now for the main task of the day—wash my underwear—

two months abused—what would the ants say about that?

How can I wash my clothes—why I’d, I’d, I’d be a woman if I did

that. (“Poems”).


In this conclusion, he describes the specters he sees reflected back to him in his mirror: a ghost, a mummy, and Napoleon. These three reflections are dead and indicate a preoccupation with his mortality, something he likely confronts alongside his desire to stop his hallucinations. His shift to focus on his task to clean his underwear then takes on the characteristically surrealist tone; he stutters as he says “I’d” and tries to gather his thoughts. The em-dashes that precede it help establish his jumbled thoughts; he does not manage to construct a full, complete sentence nor idea. Rather, he follows his racing mind onto the page and allows himself the freedom of partial phrases. Like “Frist Poem” this poem introduces surrealist techniques, but Orlovsky frequently restrains himself from their potentials. In comparison though, “Second Poem” reads as a second part to “Frist Poem” where Orlovsky continues to experiment with his surrealist inclinations.

In Cannes during the same year, Orlovsky wrote his “One Line Scrap Book” a long poem of short ideas that continues his Surrealist tone as the poem begins with the unsettling, “teeth are the fingers that type on the tung / the salive the milkey-way gum / cave drippings” (“Poems”). He immediately writes disconnected from reality. This poem is mystifying as it demonstrates his wrestle with his state of mind. He writes “Call me crazzy but when talk of heaven enlivens the party room / I roam all the morning long with you a dopey tung / so call me crazzy” (“Poems”) and later says that “I have room for one more idiot in my house” (“Poems”). His ultimate villain is himself. The poem continues along a spiral of striking and apparently disconnected images that convey a disjointed state of mind. He asserts his self-awarded label of “crazzy” to eliminate any question about his state of mind. He insists


If you have a mind dont hock it or put it in storage.

I have a brain in the sane.

He looks death, death carried from eye to eye, moves fast as a wink.

The show must go on, wake up, eat cornflakes with white paint.

Baseball plays on in the diamond grave. (“Poems”)


The morbid image of death separates the mind from the body, as though the reader may be without a mind, just as Orlovsky hides his brain elsewhere. Death also acts as an omnipresence rather than a state; it almost seems more like a curious or comedic influence than something to be fearful of. This section of the poem once again dives into a different world where death reigns and the mind and self exist untethered. Since the mind is precious but Orlovsky has a “crazzy” one, the poem disturbs its readers through an initial revocation of any sense of security.

The unsettling images continue throughout the first section of the poem; in the second section of “One Line Scrapbook” titled “another day” he begins with a note of sadness:


The smiling shadow in the heart is an unseen face in clay.

The bubble from a fish as it comes to the surface to meet the

bubble of the universe, both bubbles meet, the lesser pops

Action in the universe from a fishes buble to the surface… (“Poems”)


As with his “Frist Poem” Orlovsky writes his own version of the unreal universe. Here he presents the universe as a bubble a fish blows. He offers an outsider’s perspective onto our own universe. With the word “the” he poses the universe as a fragile entity on the verge of inevitable collapse. The fish’s bubble is a cute image that holds happy and juvenile connotations, but it is also epic as these two bubbles enter a war where only one can prevail. The whole image is coded in layers, none of which are real, but mere perversions on common images. Toward the end of the second section, he writes


The valley of no moon.

The world has a heart.

The moon is a bong on the drum of the earth

A fat-eyed mammoth, happey am I.

I want gods lock, the clock is now in his mind.

I sit yearning, I will send my beautiful dreams to him &

My wordless fantisises (“Poems”)


He juxtaposes perceptions of the earth and the moon with the metaphor of them together. He then demonstrates himself as a massive, extinct being, and finally, as envious of and in conversation with God. Although he works in words, he indicates the desire to speak to someone who understands the ideas that lie behind them. He continues and amplifies his use of inventive, unreal images throughout this poem and creates a series of eye-catching, disconnected vignettes. This poem is hard to keep track of and only manages coherency because of its title: the poem is not meant to be read as one, but as a collection of ideas.

The final, and shortest section in “One Line Scrapbook” also titled “another day” begins with the curious “Silence can also be a poem” (“Poems”). He continues to demonstrate the difficult relationship a poet must have with their words since some of the greatest poems cannot be written seeing as words are restrictive labels for the mind. Orlovsky tries to pass on the “wordless fantasises” he sends to God when he asks us to consider silence for a moment. He winds the poem down as he says, “All battles are lost at heavens feet” (“Poems”) as he subtly makes the assertion that the battle poets have when they express the surreal ends in a place non-reliant on words. If God can understand communication without words, why would heaven not allow us to, as well?

The poem “My Bed Is Covered Yellow” continues to demonstrate Orlovsky’s eccentricity, but with a much warmer tone than his other early works. The poem begins with,


My bed is covered yellow – Oh Sun, I sit on you

Oh golden field I lay on you

Oh money I dream of you –

More, More cried the bed – talk to me more (“Poems”).


The use of yellow, golden, bed, and sunshine all suggest warmth and comfort; something in contrast to everything he has written previously. He is not preoccupied here, at the beginning, with some of the darker, more difficult elements that he includes throughout “Frist Poem” and “One Line Scrapbook.” The images of sitting on the sun and his talking bed being a field are all surreal and he writes these images quite plainly; he creates an almost juvenile image of his sun-soaked bed before the poem begins its more serious turn a progression that is characteristic of Orlovsky’s early poems. He writes,


Oh bed that taked the wight of the world –

all the lost dreams laid on you …

Oh bed, only for man & not for animals

yellow bed when will the animals have equal rights?

Oh 4 legged bed off the floor forever built

Oh yellow bed all the news of the world

lay on you at one time or another (“Poems”).


The warm, luring image of the bed takes on an ultimate sense of importance. Suddenly, instead of the bed being something illuminated by the sun, it is a place where people unload their woes and where the issues of humanity lie. One of these issues that Orlovsky chooses to raise is the difference in rights between animals and humans, so much as that the bed is only for the human. Although it may seem like a minor note, random even, it is a precursor of the later preoccupations he addresses in his poetry. [13] In this poem, Orlovsky manages to juxtapose the warm images of the sun-soaked bed with the weight of all human worry. He is liberal with his use of images and writes with an oral sound that reads as a stream of consciousness. Both of these techniques exist in traditional Surrealist and Beat poetry and his use of them together helps this poem resemble both schools. Although this poem reads a little differently than his other early poems, it maintains his intrigue with the surreal of the world, albeit still cautiously.

These poems that Orlovsky wrote during his early travels with Ginsberg demonstrate a young period of hesitant experimentation. Although he had written previously, Orlovsky was at once in a series of new environments and circumstances that realistically encouraged him to experiment more liberally in his writing. The variety in subject matter during this early period demonstrates how he was learning to develop his Surrealist technique, particularly through his use of Surreal images and common tone. His poems demonstrate his unique voice that sounds remarkably similar to how he spoke and reflects both his academic history and his “write it down” (“Poems”) technique. He also begins to experiment with his forms; longer poems with short sections and shorter, single-section poems. He is also inventive in the ways he uses sectioning from making each new line being a new section to experimenting with the possibilities of free verse and potentials for section titles in “One Line Scrapbook.” He breaks several professional poetic conventions, through his misspelled words and through his Beat page spacing, but still manages to compose poems that attempt to say something, even though he embeds their meanings significantly below the surface. These early poems combine the Beat and Surreal as he experiments to create his own voice; his grasp on the two styles strengthens as he continues to write into his middle period.


III – Middle Poems

In January of 1958, Orlovsky returned home quickly from his travels to New York City to help with his family (Schumacher). Orlovsky’s biographer, Bill Morgan, acknowledges that “On board ship, Peter continued to experiment with writing in a surrealist manner” (A Life in Words) and argues that “Dear Allen: Ship Will Land Jan 23, 1958 –” is the successful result of his experimentations (A Life in Words). The return to New York, the temporary separation from Ginsberg, and the continued stress of his family, all seemingly enhanced his confidence in his poetry. The poetry he wrote after his departure from Europe in 1958 possesses a deeper appreciation for the surreal and he experiments more with form, length, and subject matter during this period. [14] Although “Frist Poem” is one that fans and scholars reference often, he formalizes his characteristic sound in the six years after its composition. During this period between early 1958 and late 1963, Orlovsky traveled throughout the United States, parts of Europe, and most notably, through India with Ginsberg. He also spent periods where he traveled separately.

Although his middle period only takes place over five years, he produced his largest volume of published poetry during the period. He wrote thirty-three of the fifty-five poems later included in Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs during this half-decade. The stronger Surrealist qualities of his poems during this period become the defining nature of Orlovsky’s poetry. As a result of the length of this period, I assess five key poems from Clean Asshole Poems and one unpublished poem from this period to offer a demonstration of the Surrealism in his work from the middle period. I also examine “Letter to Charlie Chaplin” a 1961 collaboration between Orlovsky and Ginsberg to highlight how Orlovsky’s Surrealist tendencies are at their strongest in his independent work. Finally, although Orlovsky writes “Leper’s Cry” written nearly a decade after his middle period in 1971, since this significant poem [15] resembles the other poems of later period, I also address “Lepers Cry” in this chapter.


III.I – “Dear Allen”

The second era in Orlovsky’s poetry began with “Dear Allen: Ship Will Land Jan 23, 1958 –” an extended letter and poem in two defined parts written in extensive stanzas. The poem is a stream of Orlovsky’s anxious consciousness:


Talk of dreams

sleep of headake –

cock of ball – glass of water –

walking into the bathroom to sit down on tiolet

I open door but before I get to toilit

there is another door & another door I open to go in

& yet another door & the room gets smaller

each time I open another door –

till I finally feel I am a miget in a race of doors

in tiny bathroom, what has happened

all I want is candy – no toilet – let me alone –

would you like to dance, perhaps you are in love

with me – am I worth it? (“Poems”)


He begins with a dreamscape in which, almost as though he is in wonderland again, his body shrinks. Claustrophobia sinks in along with the headache. As he opens one door after another, he conjures an unsolvable maze. As the stanza reaches its peak, he shatters the tension when he asks, “what has happened[?]” He juxtaposes an intense, impossible, and surreal scene with candy, dancing, and love, three images that are inappropriate given his anxiety. But rather than managing to escape the anxiety, he reintroduces it with the universal, existential question, “am I worth [love]?” Although Beat literature tends to play with contrasting images and the weight of feeling through words, his surreal shrinking world is foreign to typical Beat writing. Orlovsky places himself into an inescapable situation, and once he reaches a climax in his tension, he seemingly wakes from his anxiety and jumps to the next thought in his mind.

This style seems like the one that Breton describes in the first Manifesto of Surrealism when he says,

If silence threatens to settle in if you should ever happen to make a mistake – a mistake, perhaps due to carelessness – break off without hesitation with an overly clear line. Following a word the origin of which seems suspicious to you, place any letter whatsoever, the letter ‘l’ for example, always the letter ‘l,’ and bring the arbitrary back by making this letter the first of the following word.

Orlovsky does not begin with the arbitrary letter “l” as Breton proposes, but he does shift his focus through significant use of em-dashes. At the beginning of the passage, after he introduces his state of his mind, he uses the em-dash to begin the segment on the doors. Instead of a natural decrescendo, he jumps into the different visions with three em-dashes in the line “all I want is candy – no toilet – let me alone –” (“Poems”). He creates a visual divide on his page to indicate the coming change in his ideas, from one expression of his mind of the surreal bathroom, to the other, concerned with love.

He uses this jarring tactic throughout the poem until he shifts his focus completely to discuss the Statue of Liberty, where he uses a series of line breaks. In the third stanza, he calls on her:


My Libirty knows that I love her –

in dreams she holds hands with me

her kiss beats red

Oh, money is not on her –

She is very lonely


Oh Devel Librity Kiss me –

Know that I love you –

that I need you. – & must

have you (“Poems”)


Orlovsky’s use of em-dashes in this section of the poem demonstrates his rapid succession of thoughts. Overall, he expresses his surreal love affair with the Statue of Liberty, but the em-dashes shorten his declarations of love into partial thoughts he does not fully develop. Rather, he jumps between how he feels about her to his dreams about her, to her emotional state, and concludes in an ultimate declaration of his love for her. The evocation of her image is similar to how Beat writers [16] call on the images of well-known poets or artists as inspiration, but Orlovsky takes the tactic to an extreme. Lady Liberty is not a spectre he follows; she becomes Orlovsky’s lover in three of the six stanzas he dedicates to her in this poem. However, the statue also acts as a transition between Orlovsky’s surreal states of mind onboard ship and his actual return to New York City.

He breaks from his surreal play with images when he returns to reality for a moment:


see New York after one

years absent – new buildings will

have grown up – will I recognize

New York even. (“Poems”)


The poem serves as a distraction from the sober reality that New York’s landscape, including the people within it, will have changed in his absence. Orlovsky explores layers of anxiety and emotion because of the reality that New York has changed, and he does not manage to truly escape from his return through this poem. Although “Dear Allen” serves as exploration into his mind and ideas, his sudden tonal and thematic shift concludes the poem soberly. Orlovsky concludes the poem in the foremost cabinet of his mind: the one that confronts his present circumstance rather than a fantasy such as with his explorations of Lady Liberty. He returns his readers to reality from his various explorations into the surreal and leaves them stranded in the weight of his reality.

The length of this poem allows for him to investigate significantly more than he does in his early poems. As in “One Line Scrapbook” Orlovsky here jumps between a wide range of images and settings but unlike this earlier poem, “Dear Allen” is unified in the sense that it is a rambling letter. He makes fluid use of the letter structure as he repurposes a familiar form of communication into one for mental exploration and experimentation. The second section opens an out-of-place frame where he speaks to Lady Liberty, but it remains within the context of his correspondence to Ginsberg. Many of his lines are relatively short here which make the poem Beatifically fast-paced. The images are consistently surreal and create a dreamlike and otherworldly quality that crescendos until the end with his sober realization. He blends surreal explorations into his mental images, such as in his “race of doors” (“Poems”) and love for lady liberty, with the Beatific stylistic elements such as the repetitive use of the ampersand. He uses Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” mantra beyond Beat to reach his Surrealist associations of images. “Dear Allen” is a significantly surer poem than any in his early period; Orlovsky writes with a consistent combination of Surrealist and Beat tones


III.II – Snail Ramblings, Subway Rides, and Collaborations

During his time in New York, Orlovsky composed “Snail Poem.” This poem is significantly shorter than “Dear Allen” and hints at his interest in agriculture that becomes his focus in his later period. He begins the poem with “Make my grave shape of heart so like a flower be free aired / & handsome felt” (“Poems”). He juxtaposes the images of the heart and being handsome with a grave, the primary motif of the poem. The body of the poem takes on an interesting shift when he writes:


Ear turnes close to underlayer of green felt moss & sound

of rain dribble thru this layer

down to the roots that will tickle my ear.

Hay grave, my toes need cutting so file away

in sound curve or

Garbage grave, way above my head, blood will soon

trickle into my ear – (“Poems”).


First, Orlovsky introduces the image of him in the grave where roots tickle his ear. Then, he jumps to the image that his toe needs to be cut off. Finally, he reintroduces the image of liquid that falls into his ear, but this time, the liquid is blood. These images are all quite shocking. The self in a grave is claustrophobic but Orlovsky does not express panic or even unease; he writes more intently about the natural moss, roots, and rain around the grave. These images of nature, independent of the grave, are relatively peaceful. Although they make logical sense in a graveyard, the combination reads unsettlingly. The jump to the toe and then the rain turning to blood is when the surreal quality of this poem accelerates because the scene is no longer plausible. Orlovsky solidifies this surrealistic tone in the poem with the final two lines: “So my toe can curl & become a snail & go curiousely / on its way” (“Poems”). He reinforces his preoccupation with his toe in lines 18 and 19 in these final lines as he actualizes the title of the poem. He lies conscious in his grave and waits for his toe to dislodge and become an autonomous snail. The thought is nauseating and frightening but nonetheless possesses an element of charm through his juvenile tone and diction. “Snail Poem” is an interesting realization of his Surreal voice in the way that the careful weaving of contrastingly realistic and bizarre images leads to a full realization of the surreal at its conclusion.

In 1959, Orlovsky wrote a poem wherein he outlines his view on writing poetry, something he would later reinforce through his lectures at the Naropa Institute. In “Writing Poems is a Saintly Thing” he says


Memory ramblings

over tall mountains carrying me away to that nomads land whare

to breathe is but to sigh at a lost dream that

rolls away from the eyes. (“Poems”)


This description that he gives to poetry, as though it is the mind’s way to express runaway memories and dreams, is, again, similar to Breton’s idea that writing should be “products of free association or automatic writing”. In this poem on poetry, Orlovsky feels like the poem takes him elsewhere. This other place, this dreamscape is a space in the mind other than the conscious waking one in which we conduct our day-to-day selves. It is the surreal space of the mind. In the rest of the poem, he argues his room is not good enough since it “cant hold / all the people in the world and chairs lonely because built for / only one” (“Poems”) before he suggests that “All angels meet on the curve of the earth & form a line that / becomes a bridge to the sun” (“Poems”). He juxtaposes a lonely mentality where, if he cannot have everyone, he is without anyone with the idea that angels connect the Earth to the Sun, as though no one is every really alone. These peculiar associations that Orlovsky writes heighten and reaffirm the surreal nature of this poem.

In “Poems from Subway to Work” Orlovsky takes his readers along his observational experiences as he rides on the New York subway. Although this poem is reminiscent of “Frist Poem” and “Second Poem” he does not now shy away from his surrealist inclinations in this poem, but instead allows them to guide the poem. He writes,


Let the subway be our greek meeting place

for there is whare everybody goes


But here all sad faces meet

& I sit silent but happy bound

that all my New York family is here.

I am a subway rider near you all, only

I want to talk to you – but everybody is so

straighfaced & mummy fixed.

Standing over you my tung drops out

and accidently licks the bald head

of an old man reading shues. (“Poems”)


What Orlovsky uses particularly effectively in his development of the surreal in this poem is a slow crescendo. He allows the reader to grow comfortable with his register and style before he slowly sinks into surreal imagery. He establishes the busy subway space as a meeting ground for sad people, where he is surprisingly and contrastingly joyous. The juxtaposition between his emotional state and the gloom around him creates a sense of unease he only perpetuates when he describes everyone’s expressions as “mummy fixed.” He writes about his surroundings as though he is in a cemetery; everyone around him feels dead. Then he confirms the morbid nature of the poem with the description of his tongue falling out and licking the head of the old man. He jumps between the Beat-inspired scene of people in despair due to monotonous life [17] to the purely surreal. Orlovsky’s ability to establish a scene where the surreal slips in naturally, not out of place but with remaining surprise, is cinematic here. It demonstrates a sincere level of appreciation for and comfort with the surreal world he chooses to construct and display.

By 1960, some of Orlovsky’s experimentations with morbidity in his poetry and prose began to take on Baudelaire’s characteristics in the sense that he begins to record the beauty of decay and ugliness. An unnamed poem from his journal in April of that year reads,


All the bugs in the zoo die

near the flowers

or in small rock caves

or under bed legs of rotted wood

a berry ripens

while a banana warps

my tree is a fig farm

falling in hay

makes tomato paste

under the park rock a light will shine

behind the moon a toy balloon will fly out

inside my nose the smelly witch is stewing her brew

when I die my toe nail will crawl away as a snail

Charlie Chaplin is mining again under the caverns of my finger nails – (A Life in Words)


The poem jumps from one idea to another and does not fully develop a single coherent thought. Rather, he puts together a compilation of various, untethered images, to create an unsettling poem. He juxtaposes the beauty of flora with the death of the already unpleasant images of bugs. He reintroduces creepy-crawlies through the image of his toenail crawling away after death. The whole poem is uneasy to read but successful at drawing the reader in to see just what he wishes to say. The poem seems to draw upon the Baudelairean idea of combining the beautiful with the dark and vile to create a gratifying yet unnerving reading experience, while at the same time it mixes in the general Surrealist tactic of writing without hesitation or censorship.

When Orlovsky returned to his travels in 1961, he collaborated with Ginsberg on “Letter to Charlie Chaplin.” Dianne di Prima suggests Orlovsky most likely composed the majority of the piece. [18] The letter is goofy, child-like, and offers a taste of quirkiness that many of Orlovsky’s earlier poems lack due to their melancholic tones. The beginning is somewhat odd when he says

Love letter for you. We are one happey poet & one unhappey poet in India which makes 2 poets. We would like come visit you when we get thru India to tickle yr feet. Further more King in New York is great picture, - I figure it will take about 10 yrs before it looks funny in perspective. Every few years we dream in our sleep we meat you. (“Poems”)

The writing is bizarre and scattered but uses a lot of images Orlovsky plays with constantly. [19] With the use of shorter words, and jumpy ideas, he writes less of unreality and more of excitement. Though Orlovsky uses Bretonian methods of free-association writing, since this is a collaboration with Ginsberg, it makes sense that this letter reads more like Beat prose poetry than his fully independent work. The rest of the letter basically surveys what Orlovsky has learned in India and how much he admires Chaplin before he asks “What else shall we say to you before we all die? If everything we feel could be said it would be very beautiful” (“Poems”). In this instance, Orlovsky demonstrates that it is too difficult to express what one wishes to say since the words behind feelings are inaccessible. At the very end of the letter, after an odd “synops[is]” (“Poems”), Orlovsky signs off with the final message: “you will save the world if ya make it – but ur final look must be so beautiful that it doesnt matter if the world is saved or not. Okay I guess we can end it now. Forgive us if you knew it all before” (“Poems”). [20] These final few phrases offer a glimpse of sobriety after the initial cascade of energy. The letter rides a natural high through to its demonstration of sincere emotion cradled beneath it. What it is exactly that Orlovsky wishes to say to Chaplin remains between the two of them. Perhaps the letter is more to himself in the image of a world-saving-and-creating comedian rather than to Chaplin himself. This letter is an exaggerated version of the ones he writes to his friends and family during the same period and is more Beat than his typical middle period.

After a noted pause in writing, Orlovsky completed “Lepers Cry” one of his most notable poems due to its publication as number fifteen in the Oblong Octavo Series. [21] This 1971 poem reads more like his middle period poems primarily due to the subject matter, his structure, and his surrealist tone; he is not nearly as jovial as in his later period and he discusses the memory of encountering a woman with leprosy while in India. This poem is of a significantly more serious nature than his other later poems.

“Lepers Cry” opens with Orlovsky’s description of the scene: “When in Banaras / India in 1961 Summer I was / flooded on my morphine mattress” (“Poems”). Throughout most of the poem he describes how he cares for this woman with leprosy as he writes,


[the] maggots became more alive and

active & danced into the air

above her side more. It was

difficult to get all the maggots out

so after a few

pourings and cotton cleanings I

covered it with sulpher ointment of

I dont quite remember because its

been 10 years ago and I have


been so scattered fingers to write

This real sad tail – which is

another discusting disease in its self (“Poems”).


This segment is an example of how he combines memory and personal reflection with the surreal. The maggots develop lives of their own similar to his toe in “Snail Poem.” Although he demonstrates his sadness towards the end of this segment, he includes a sense of hyper-fixation with this illness he attempts to treat. He demonstrates a deep sadness and compassion for this woman with leprosy while he writes an almost perverted poem of fascination with the illness. [22] Orlovsky’s use of the contrasting tones, along with the jarring jumps between recounting, spontaneous images, and reflection create the surreal tone in this poem that reflects the poems from his middle period.

Most of the remainder of the poem focuses on various days when he attempts to help the woman clean her infections. A remarkable Surrealist image he later introduces reads,


I saw

her again and this Time I looked

on her right side behind and there

was another maggot soupe dish

big and eaten down

to her thigh bone (“Poems”).


Orlovsky bestows the words he uses to describe his experience as a volunteer with surreal twists. He contorts the maggot infested leg into a prepared meal that further consumes the woman’s flesh. In his description, he also jumps between tones. In the more violent and graphic passages such as this one, his tone remains somewhat passive as though he is a removed observer. He then contrasts this impartiality with “its all so sad – and / now to this day I feel all / the more Lazzey & Dumb” (“Poems”). Both his detached and emotional passages preserve Orlovsky’s surrealist vernacular tone. He successively alternates between these methods of storytelling to create and maintain the surrealist nature to this poem that he demonstrates most explicitly through the surreal images.

Orlovsky’s middle period is his largest. He wrote thirty-three of his fifty-six poems in Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs during these few years. [23] Although these poems do vary in subject matter, they are distinctly denser in surreal imagery and other surreal poetic tactics than those of his earlier period. Here, he fluctuates between eccentric images and more calculated surreal ones. In these poems, he records a lot of his life, both from day-to-day minute moments to bigger, once-in-a-lifetime experiences he lives as he travels. [24] The length and complexity of his middle period poems also help suggest his comfort in himself solidified during these years; he granted himself more words and space to write and allowed himself to express his thoughts comprehensively. In this period, he was preoccupied with his place in the world and seems to try to stabilize himself through his “memory ramblings” (“Poems”). The early and middle periods share the same style of surreal experimentation as it pertains to tone. The primary difference is that he did not stop himself as readily in this middle period. Instead, when he stumbled, he frequently employed em-dashes, line breaks, and section breaks to restore the poem’s momentum to a surrealist viewpoint. Further, both periods play with surreal images and create the sense of a serious and plausible impossible wonderland, one that would feel real in a dream. He remained hyper-critical and self-aware in these periods as he attempts to question and record himself and his surroundings even though they appeared surreal to him.

His later period underwent a significant shift from this established sound. Orlovsky attempted to maintain his Beat and surrealist notes of fast paced ideas and phrases but ultimately lost control of the atmosphere he constructed in his early and middle writings. Altogether, Orlovsky’s middle period is the most profoundly demonstrative of his creative capabilities and does not indicate his creative decline.


IV – Later Poems

After his return from India, Orlovsky’s mental health slowly declined as he wrote less frequently (Morgan, A Life in Words). Ginsberg’s fame began to rise while the pair travelled throughout the United States and spent months apart. Ginsberg’s biographer, Michael Schumacher, suggests “If anyone suffered as a result of Allen’s fame, it was Peter Orlovsky”. Peter’s reliance on drugs caused him to frequently find himself in manic, drug-induced cleaning frenzies (Morgan, A Life in Words). Between 1963 and 1971, he took a break from composing whole poems as he underwent frequent cycles of drug abuse and attempts to remain sober (Morgan, A Life in Words). To offer the support he needed, in 1968 Ginsberg purchased a farm in Cherry Valley, New York, to serve as a retreat from the drug-filled streets of the Lower-East Side (Schumacher). During his years on the farm, Orlovsky’s writing adopted a new style as he developed a passion and borderline obsession with farming, pesticides, and GMOs. Along with his subject matter, his composition shifted to an unstable, more chaotic, and louder one than he had ever written in. Further, Orlovsky wrote seven songs which he includes in Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs, that further express his interest in agriculture. This final period is Orlovsky’s most eccentric but is also less refined than his earlier periods. The poems and songs feel generally incomplete, messy, and careless as they frequently employ scatology.

A notable demonstration of his latter period’s style is 1977’s “My Mother Memory Poem.” Orlovsky repeatedly read this controversial poem at the Naropa Institute and normally prefaced his reading with a statement about how his mother wishes he would stop sharing it. [25] The short poem reads,


My mothers very funney some times,

when I was 17teen she told me

she sucked my gigger when I was 3 months old

& sucked my dildo in frunt of my farther

& he got jealous she said & he told her to quit haveing fun.


I always loved that storey & tell it fast when ever I can

to sweet friendley girls. (“Poems”)


This poem arguably shows Orlovsky’s state of mind during his later period. It is a gross tale that he calls “funney.” His tone and writing are on the sloppier side of his poems. His declaration that he tries to share this story as fast as he can only reaffirms its quality; Orlovsky is more concerned with retelling this story to pick up women, as he indicates in the final line. He does not make an active attempt to construct a full scene in this poem even though it is a technique he employed constantly in his middle period. [26] This poem is an attempt at Surrealism through his effort to attract intrigue, though his use of the disgusting images and thoughts, but the poem does not reach its full surreal potential. Instead, it leaves the reader dissatisfied and uncomfortable. This poem is an unsatisfactory attempt of Orlovsky’s desire to write like a surrealist.

Later in the same year, Orlovsky writes the poem “America, Give a Shit!” in which he urges city-dwellers to contribute their excrement to nearby farms to use as fertilizer. He writes,


Remembering Allen & me walking to East River

around 17th Street

& there we saw the sewage flow about 2 feet deep

out 6 foot diameter tunnel

slowely moveing melting into East River.

What interesting surprise brown flow discovery,

on its way to East Rivers garden floor.

Even cows dont throw away their plop

but let it drop

near many eating pasture spots

& next year dung turns into better green

grass than before. (“Poems”)


Once again, although almost as parody, Orlovsky seems to write in a similar mindset to Baudelaire in the sense that they both intend to powerfully shock their readers. Orlovsky writes excitedly and passionately about human excrement and focuses on how it can lead to healthier and greener grass when used correctly. The poem features remarkably disgusting and unpleasant images; in almost a childlike sense, he brings colours and passion to what few would ever like to think of. But instead of following the poem and allowing it to reach a natural climax and conclusion, he winds down the poem with the suggestion that farmers sing “odes to human dung / while raking more dried human manure / into the ground under persimmon fruit trees” (“Poems”). In this poem, Orlovsky describes himself as though he is not alone in singing songs about human waste. He concludes the poem with a juxtaposing image: one of beautiful pastures. The evolution between fertilizer and natural growth is fairly unremarkable and possesses a realist quality rather than a surrealist one. Orlovsky effectively plays with disgusting images in this poem but does not use them to realize the surrealist vision present in his early and middle periods. Rather, this poem is a mere description of an environmental dream. Orlovsky’s tone does not even align closely with the ones he uses in previous poems; the use of the rhyme “drop” and “plop” aligns more closely with the juvenile tone he uses in his songs during this later period.

This bizarre, juvenile, yet highly engaged tone is present in the seven songs he includes in Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs; four of which are about healthy crops. Arguably his most famous song, “All Around the Garden” written to the tune of Jimmy Rodgers’s “All Around the Water Tank” begins with the date and the setting of the scene:


All around the garden, May 30, 1973

Only planted 600 feet of Edable Pea Pods

Oh belly how silly I can be


All around the Rhubarb Patch,

nearby dairy farmer Mr. Grahm let me have

his 50 year old Rhubarb Patch,

Transplanted & growing as big as the ground

Floor of a red Rhubarb house. (“Poems”)


This song follows a structure of rhythm and random rhyme that remains absent in most of his previous poems. He does not take himself too seriously here and writes a song that sounds like a nursery rhyme that employs vulgar language. The song is simple and without overt Surrealist images until the very end when he writes,


Buckets full of human manure, here I come after you.

All around the compost pile

The bigger the compost pile the better

Hey compost pile as big as my room

With the help of a million worms

I’m gonna drag you into my dreams. (“Poems”)


The image Orlovsky constructs goes from one of a vegetable patch to the one of human waste. The size of the image of compost crescendos through repetition and it plateaus with the notion that it will take one million worms to help him deal with it. However, the most Surreal part of this verse is that he insists he will employ these worms to transport the manure from the physical realm into his dream world, something no one would ever realistically want to do nor be excited about. The song goes from a lighthearted nature to one that evokes sickness, disgust, and unease.

Another song that focuses on a similar subject matter is “Feeding them Rassberres to Grow.” The song begins with,


5 years ago up in New York State

Planted 50 feet of the Rassberry Gate

Now I see them growing on my plate

Lovey sweet Rassberrys growing in a row

Sweetest country time

Feeding them Rassberrys to grow (“Poems”)

This song possesses a more lyrical quality than “All Around the Garden” The rhyme scheme of this first stanza goes AAABCB. He does not maintain this rhyme structure throughout but does include the AAA rhyme pattern for the following two and then fifth and sixth stanzas. This poem combines the juvenile voice that frequents this later period with his refined knowledge of agriculture.

He throws in the occasional surreal image in “Feeding them Rassberres to Grow” such as “I see them growing on my plate” (“Poems”) alongside the discussion of the growing raspberries. Arguably the most surreal part of the song is during the final stanza when he says,


Oh you grow with a little red hat over yr eye

Oh you grow a little sigh in the middle of my eye

Oh Im in love w/ you, till I die –

Rassberry, Rassberry, Rassberrey, Sweet inside

Oh Sweet Rassberry, healthey & drinkable inside

Drink you, drink you, til you grow, sweeter inside me

Sweet is the flowers that bloom in august,

my little red bells

Hang you from my memory window tung brain (“Poems”).


Here, Orlovsky demonstrates his keen obsession with the raspberries. Orlovsky is insatiable; he desires more and more of the raspberries inside of him for them to grow and to gain all the sugar. It is truly bizarre and nearly uncomfortable to read. Though, some of this discomfort comes from the surrealist tactics Orlovsky employs. He plays with the surreal images of the “red hat” raspberries growing over eyes and suggests that they grow sweet as inside of him as he consumes them. This sense of continuous growth is reminiscent of both Alice in Wonderland and the doors he kept running through in “Dear Allen.” The song seems to exist in a completely different world where the only thing of importance is the raspberry. Unlike “All Around the Garden” Orlovsky does not take his attentions off the raspberries to create a series of images; he only focuses on the raspberries and is hyper-fixated on them beyond rationality.

In 1974, Orlovsky began to teach occasional classes at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Colorado. Most of the courses he taught happened during the summer semester, an important time for a farmer, which rendered the farm less beneficial to his recovery (Morgan, A Life in Words). He taught numerous courses during the core school year, but in those lectures, he often sounds exhausted and irritable. [27] Morgan suggests that


During the final thirty years of his life Peter had fewer and fewer lucid days. … his use of drugs and alcohol fueled his increasingly crazy activities … eventually winding up in halfway houses, clinics, and mental institutions. His writing became even more sporadic, incoherent, and scatological in nature (A Life in Words 267).


There is little to pull from these final years as most of it is jumbled and not reflective of his earlier, deliberate work. Even in his last poem from his journals, Orlovsky demonstrates how he was no longer in the same frame of mind he had once been in: “Like a fool, Uncle Pete shot too much coke / and now no money left – / Not to mention no brains left” (A Life in Words 283). Nevertheless, Orlovsky’s later poems not only highlight the extraordinary nature of his earlier works but help to contextualize his poetry in his life. Although his earlier poems offer more room for literary praise, these final poems help to emphasize his employment of scatology throughout his creative career and to demonstrate the importance Orlovsky placed on Surrealism. His use of scatology in these final poems is reminiscent of his darker, more disturbing images in his earlier poems, such as in “Snail Poem” but they are more extreme. Although these final poems appear disconnected from Orlovsky’s more active, earlier periods, they reflect his mental decline and demonstrate the importance he placed on his creative impulses regardless.


V – Conclusion

Peter Orlovsky was an overlooked poet, educator, and member of the Beat Generation. Alongside his life partner, Allen Ginsberg, Orlovsky spent his creative career developing his own unique style, creative personality, and voice. Although he was certainly a Beat poet, with respect to both his style and contemporaries, he drew extensive inspiration from the Surrealist movement and surrealistic poets. In various written and oral mediums, he vocalized the ways poets such as Arthur Rimbaud, Guillaume Apollinaire, Federico García Lorca, Kenneth Koch (“How I Learned to Write and Who I Learned From” “Poems”), Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Paul Verlaine (A Life in Words) influenced him through various written and oral mediums. These records suggest he possessed a thorough acquaintance with the artistic outputs of Surrealist and satellite-Surrealist writers that helped modify his style. Even though he did not engage personally with the core members of the French Surrealist circle, his poetic inspirations did, and important elements of his style and form were influenced by the circle. In reviewing his published and unpublished creative work, it becomes evident that Orlovsky learned creative techniques from these poets, resulting in his unique employment of the surreal.

In this essay, I have assessed how Orlovsky plays with the surrealistic in fourteen of his fifty-five poems in Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs, as well as in further poems and poetic entries from his journals published in Peter Orlovsky: A Life in Words. Even so, this investigation serves as only a survey of Orlovsky’s work. Although surreal and Beat elements are present throughout Orlovsky’s body of creative work, the poems assessed here demonstrate the relationship between these two creative schools in his most widely circulated and discussed poems. [28] He interweaves Surrealist and Beat poetic characteristics and styles consistently throughout his body of artistic work.

Joanna Pawlik supports this method of investigation into Surrealist interactions with Beat poetry when she suggests that

American writers’ dialogues with Surrealism were not usually with the ‘First Manifesto’ of 1924, or solely about irrationality, fragmentation, spontaneity, or romanticism… [they] were instead more frequently conducted between the many mediated versions of Surrealism in circulation, a consequence of the movement’s long history and permeation of transnational literary, artistic and intellectual cultures.

Even though historical and formal definitions help to establish and contextualize artistic movements and ideas, they also serve as limitations against holistic investigations into the nature of artists removed from and yet influenced by a movement. Peter Orlovsky was unlike the best-known Beat-Surrealist poet Philip Lamantia, in the sense that he drew inspiration from other surrealistic writers and did not engage with the Surrealists themselves. Orlovsky was a Beat poet in both his style and associations with the core Beat members, but he was also a surrealist poet in his implementations of surrealistic concerns and techniques. He primarily drew inspiration from other poets who wrote in surrealistic fashions and demonstrates their influences through his unique, fragmented, and vernacular poems. He employed disconnected and startling images that are often reminiscent of Surrealism and he concerned himself more with describing his experiences as he imagined them rather than how they engaged with society more broadly, as most Beat poets did. The lack of a connection with official Surrealist writers does not change the presence nor impact of the surrealist techniques in Orlovsky’s poems. Rather, Orlovsky only affirms Pawlik’s suggestion that surrealism expanded beyond the Surrealists.

This account of Orlovsky attempts to demonstrate how he created in his own style routed in the surreal. Although it is a Surrealist tactic, his demonstrated inclination towards misspellings is also reminiscent of E. E. Cummings’ style. Cummings was not a Surrealist, but this surrealistic tactic he used mirrors Orlovsky’s. Although it is difficult to discern whether these irregularities were purposeful or circumstantial, his education history suggests that his spelling was a result of his schooling, and his letters, journals, and poems remain inconsistent. He wrote a number of entries that are grammatically and orthographically strong along with numerous others that contained frequent and repetitive mistakes. Whether intentional or not, these misspellings and vernacular writing create Orlovsky’s distinctively juvenile, oral, and loose sound. The implementation of misspellings follows in the dual Surrealist and Beat modes to write automatically, with one’s “first thought.” He uses this language to employ other elements of Surrealism, such as his colloquial tone, surreal images, and the suggestion that his reality and thought are constantly disconnected from each other.

Even though Orlovsky’s poetry fluctuated in his implementation of the Surreal throughout his creative career, this evolution suggests his keen and active involvement with Surrealism and his own poetry. He grew increasingly comfortable with his experiments until he reached a resounding peak in his writing. External forces then caused him to pause his creative pursuits for a decade. During this time, he experienced significant emotional and physical traumas primarily due to his relationships with drugs and alcohol. Although most of his work during his final period is not as strong as his earlier work, his interest in and implementation of the Surreal prevails to his final works in Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs.

His combination of these two literary styles, the Beat and the Surreal, demonstrates Peter Orlovsky as a poet worthy of recognition and study. To date, Orlovsky has not received sufficient critical response nor recognition. Thankfully, Bill Morgan completed an annotated selection of Orlovsky’s correspondence and journals in 2014, but this is the most comprehensive attention his work has received to date, and it offers a biographical picture rather than a scholarly review. Even critical mentions of Orlovsky, such as those written by Ann Charters in The Portable Beat Reader, Beat Down to Your Soul, and her critical essay “Peter Orlovsky” paint the picture of Orlovsky as “the original ‘flower child’” (Charters in A Life in Words, xiv) of the Beat Generation rather than as the serious poet he was. The tendency to attribute his success to Ginsberg also devalues his legacy as a poet that he deserves.

Further analysis of the relationship between Surrealism and Beat in Peter Orlovsky’s published poetry would likely continue to assert the merit of his poetic style. This research would continue the investigation into the relationship between Surrealism and the Beat Generation beyond that of the poets in direct communication with the core French school. Additional investigation into his other influences, such as the potential influence of E. E. Cummings, could also offer valuable insight into the value, complexity, and eclectic style Peter Orlovsky developed throughout his artistic career. Finally, more attention given to the role Orlovsky played as a member of the Beat Generation, not as an aside, but as the focus of an investigation, could offer insight into Orlovsky’s development as a poet, and into the roles other minor and fluid members of the Beat group. These research avenues will prove helpful in furthering our historical and academic understandings of the Beat Generation and the work its members produced. It will also simply continue to demystify the legend Peter Orlovsky left in his wake as an ethereal character in Ginsberg’s story, and will offer both the positive and negative recognition this artist deserves.



1. Most frequently, when Orlovsky is mentioned, Allen Ginsberg is accredited with encouraging him to write to the extent that Orlovsky’s career seems almost like one of Ginsberg’s many accomplishments. For example, when introducing his chapter in The Portable Beat Reader, Ann Charters suggests that, “Encouraged by Ginsberg, Orlovsky wrote occasional poetry” (404).

2. Orlovsky highlights how he derived influence from these poets in “How I Write Poetry and Who I Learned From.” In the prose poem, he outlines what he learned from Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Chögyam Trungpa, and William Carlos Williams, all of whom were closely associated with or integral members of the Beat movement. He also demonstrates what he learned from the Surrealists and pre-Surrealists Arthur Rimbaud, Guillaume Apollinaire, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Kenneth Koch (“Poems” 123-124). Additionally, in his journals and letters, Orlovsky frequently drops the names of poets he read. He mentions Rimbaud, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Paul Verlaine as early as August of 1956 in a Letter to Ginsberg (“Life in Words”45-46).

3. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Cassady, and Hunke were a group of friends who wrote and collaborated on writing in the early years that later acted as the beginning of the Beat Generation before their eventual collision with the San Francisco Renaissance Poets.

4. See First Thought Best Thought by Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Anne Waldman, and Diane di Prima as well as I.II: The Beats.

5. See “How I Write Poetry and Who I Learned From” in Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs and his audio lecture, “Literary History of the Beat Generation 1982” in the Naropa University Audio Archive for examples.

6. André Breton published Lamantia’s first collection of poems in 1943.

7. Toward his later period, Orlovsky does develop some political drive. He becomes preoccupied with the destruction of land and mass-agriculture, though his political concerns do not overtake his writings. See section IV: Later Poems for further conversation on the political element in his poetry.

8. This distinction between the Beat and the Surrealist automatic writing is important albeit slight. A Surrealist’s use of automatic writing will present as jarring and disconnected images, fluid unreal images, and emotive declarations about the state of reality versus unreality. Meanwhile Beat automatic writing manifests as long passages of thought about a problem or moment, cries against corporate culture, consumption, and industrialization, as well as frequent evocations and allusions to inspirational artists and poets. It can be difficult to distinguish between Beat and Surrealist automatic writing because both schools tend to use a colloquial tone during automatic writing. Their contexts, content, and motivation tend to be better distinguishing factors. The effects of their automatic writing most heavily rely upon their content. Even so, their rapidity, fluidity, and jumbled nature tends to add a sense of urgency and orality to both school’s poems.

9. The Naropa University Audio Archives offer extensive audio recordings from workshops, classes, and readings where Orlovsky spoke. His register was often excited and fast paced and he spoke in with less-refined diction, often swearing or using excessive colloquialisms. His poetry often sounded like he spoke with his students when teaching and conversing in the sense that they share his rhythmic speech patterns and word styles.

10. See Chapter III: Middle Poems.

11. See Chapter V: Conclusion for further discussion regarding his orthography.

12. See Orlovsky’s poems “I Dream of St. Francis” “Mental Hospital Julius” and “Peter’s Jealous of Allen.”

13. See Chapter IV: Later Poems.

14. See II: Early Poems for comparison.

15. The Phoenix Book Shop published Lepers Cry as number fifteen in their Oblong Octavo Series. The only other creative work Orlovsky publishes in its entirety as a stand-alone publication is Dear Allen: Ship Will Land Jan 23, 58 published by Intrepid Press in 1971 as number five in their The Beau Fleuve Series.

16. Such as how Ginsberg evokes the image of Walt Whitman in “Supermarket in California” or how Ferlinghetti evokes the images of Goya’s paintings in “In Goya’s Greatest Scenes.”

17. As mentioned briefly in I.II: The Beats, the Beat poets often wrote about the despair of modern humanity. Common themes include people’s discontent with and from modernity, urbanization, industrialization, rising corporate culture. Often, images are bleak and dusty and represent the cityscape as something soulless with little pockets of life to be sought out. Orlovsky’s preliminary description of the people on the subway is a remarkable example of what it looks like when the world beats down on people. They do not share Orlovsky’s excitement in everyone’s movement and coming together in this space; they demonstrate apathy toward their surroundings.

18. See the note regarding “Letter to Charlie Chaplin” in the compiled reference version of Floating Bear (Di Prima).

19. Such as feet, love, New York, dreams etc.

20. This statement is reminiscent of Ginsberg’s description of the Beats quoted on page 7. Orlovsky and Ginsberg emphasize the Beat ethos of recording and coming to terms with how the world beats down.

21. See footnote 14 for more information.

22. Orlovsky’s interest in the ill woman follows in the pre-Surrealist tradition Baudelaire establishes in “Une Charogne” where Baudelaire describes a carcass in extensive detail.

23. Thirty-four when relaxing the date parameters (early 1958 to late 1963) and including “Lepers Cry.”

24. His travels certainly help to broaden the scope of his writing. He wrote various poems and journal entries about the new places and things that he saw. See “Trying My Best To Walk Around Paris” and “August 23, 1961 Cairo Notebook” for examples.

25. See the “Fundraiser Reading” from the 12th of August 1972, available in the Naropa University Audio Archives, for an example.

26. See III.II: Snail Rambling, Subway Rides, and Collaborations for my analysis of “Poems from Subway to Work” for an example of Orlovsky’s ability to construct a scene.

27. See the “Poetry for Mouth Singers” lectures from the Naropa Archives for examples.

28. Many of the poems I discuss in this essay were previously published in literary magazines. For example, prior to Clean Asshole Poems, Orlovsky published “Second Poem” twice: the first time in Yungen volume 4 from 1959 and the second time in The New American Poetry edited by Donald Allen from 1960. He also recorded readings for some of his later poems such as “My Mother’s Memory Poem” and “Feeding Them Raspberries To Grow” in UP, a 1971 collaborative, spoken-word record with Allen Ginsberg. Finally, Orlovsky would read certain poems at poetry readings and in classes at the Naropa Institute more frequently than others. See for example his readings of “Frist Poem” and “Second Poem” during his 1982 Lecture “Literary History of the Beat Generation.”




Baudelaire, Charles. “Un Charogne.” Œuvres complètes. Edited by Jean Ziegler, Gallimard, 1975.

Benedikt, Michael. The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology. Little, Brown & Company, 1974.

Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1972.

Charters, Ann. “Peter Orlovsky.” Beat Down to Your Soul. New York, Penguin Books, 2001.

___. “Peter Orlovsky.” The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America, edited by Ann Charters, Gale, 1983. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 16.

Charters, Ann. The Portable Beat Reader. New York, Penguin Books, 1992.

Di Prima, Diane. Untitled note. The Floating Bear: A Newsletter, issue 21, New York, 1962.

French, Warren. The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, 1955-1960. Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. “In Goya’s Greatest Scenes.” A Coney Island of the Mind. New York, New Directions, 1958.

Ginsberg, Allen, Peter Orlovsky, Peter Rowan, Anne Waldman, Philip Whalen, and others. “Fundraiser Reading.” Naropa University Audio Archive, 12 August 1972, Naropa University, Boulder, Lecture. Accessed 5 July 2021.

Ginsberg, Allen. “Sunflower Sutra.” Howl and other poems. San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1959.

Kerouac, Jack. “[Biographical Resume, Fall 1957].” Heaven & other poems. San Francisco, Grey Fox Press, 1977.

Lamantia, Philip. The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia. Edited by Garret Caples, Andrew Joron, Nancy Joyce Peters, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2013.

O’Hara, Frank. “Meditations in an Emergency.” “Why I am Not a Painter” and other poems. Manchester, Carcanet Press Limited, 2003.

Orlovsky, Peter. Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs. San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1978.

___. Dear Allen, Ship will land Jan 23, 58. Buffalo, Intrepid Press, 1971.

___. “Feeding Them Raspberries To Grow.” UP, Rainbow Records, 1971.

___. “Literary History of The Beat Generation.” Naropa University Audio Archive, 7 October 1983, Naropa University, Boulder. Lecture.

___. Lepers Cry. New York, Phoenix Book Shop, 1972.

___. “My Mother’s Memory Poem.” UP, Rainbow Records, 1971.

___. Peter Orlovsky, A Life in Words: Intimate Chronicles of a Beat Writer. Edited by Bill Morgan. Boulder, Paradigm Publishers, 2014.

___. “Poetry for Mouth Singers, no. 11.” Naropa University Audio Archive, 30 September, 1982, Naropa University, Boulder.

___. “Poetry for Mouth Singers, no. 12.” Naropa University Audio Archive, 7 October, 1982, Naropa University, Boulder.

___. “Poetry for Mouth Singers, no. 14.” Naropa University Audio Archive, 4 November, 1982, Naropa University, Boulder.

___. “Poetry for Mouth Singers, no. 15.” Naropa University Audio Archive, 2 December, 1982, Naropa University, Boulder.

___. “Second Poem.” The New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen, Grove Press, New York, 1960.

___. “Second Poem” Yugen, vol. 4, edited by LeRoi Jones and Hettie Cohen, New York, 1959.

Pawlik, Joanna. “Surrealism, Beat Literature and the San Francisco Renaissance.” Literature Compass, vol. 10, no. 2, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2013.

Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1992. 



RION LEVY. A researcher and poet based in Toronto, Canada. He is mainly concerned with the stories we choose not to tell and just what this says about us. His first book, Poems of the End Times, will be released Spring, 2023.


PIERRE MOLINIER (França, 1900-1976). Fue pintor, fotógrafo, diseñador y creador de objetos. En 1955, Pierre Molinier se puso en contacto con André Breton y en 1959 se exhibía en la Exposición Surrealista Internacional. En ese momento, definieron el propósito de su arte como para mi propia estimulación, indicando la dirección futura en una de sus exhibiciones en la muestra surrealista de 1965: un consolador. Entre 1965 y su suicidio en 1976, hizo una crónica de la exploración de sus deseos transexuales subconscientes en Cent Photographies Erotiques: imágenes gráficamente detalladas de dolor y placer. Molinier, con la ayuda de un interruptor de control remoto, también comenzó a crear fotografías en las que asumía los roles de dominatriz y súcubo que antes desempeñaban las mujeres de sus cuadros. En estas fotografías en blanco y negro, Molinier, ya sea solo con maniquíes de muñeca o con modelos femeninos, aparece como un travesti, transformado por su vestuario fetiche de medias de rejilla, liguero, tacones de aguja, máscara y corsé. En los montajes, un número improbable de miembros enfundados en medias se entrelazan para crear las mujeres de las pinturas de Molinier. Declaró: En la pintura, pude satisfacer mi fetichismo de piernas y pezones. Su principal interés con respecto a su sexualidad no era ni el cuerpo femenino ni el masculino. Molinier dijo que las piernas de ambos sexos lo excitan por igual, siempre que no tengan pelo y estén vestidas con medias negras. Sobre sus muñecas dijo: Si bien una muñeca puede funcionar como un sustituto de una mujer, no hay movimiento, no hay vida. Esto tiene cierto encanto si se está ante un cadáver hermoso. La muñeca puede, pero no tiene que convertirse en el sustituto de una mujer.


Agulha Revista de Cultura

Número 220 | dezembro de 2022

Artista convidado: Pierre Molinier (França, 1900-1976)

editor geral | FLORIANO MARTINS |

editor assistente | MÁRCIO SIMÕES |

concepção editorial, logo, design, revisão de textos & difusão | FLORIANO MARTINS

ARC Edições © 2022




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