Cambridge Contributor: Daniel Kane

Daniel Kane, who contributed the chapter “From Poetry to Punk in the East Village” to the Cambridge Companion, received his doctorate in English from New York University. He is currently Senior Lecturer in American Literature at the University of Sussex. He is the author of All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s (2003);  a volume of interviews, What Is Poetry: Conversations With the American Avant-Garde (2003);  and, as editor and contributor, Don’t Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York School Writing after the “New York School” (2006).

Last year, Daniel published a volume of poetry entitled Ostentation of Peacocks (2009) and We Saw the Light: Conversations Between the New American Cinema and Poetry (2009), a study of the relationship between avant-garde poets and filmmakers in the 1960s. Film theorist Tom Gunning calls We Saw the Light “explosive and revelatory, as Kane bobs and weaves through films and poems, politics and sexuality, enmities and passions from Anger to Brakhage, Ginsberg to Ashbery, providing not only a sense of history but breathtaking readings of the ways films and poems interbred and crashed against the repressions of American society, turning the fifties into the sixties and beyond. Few books combine such scholarly detail and insight with such passion and humor.” Daniel will be in New York later this spring to promote We Saw the Light, which means that he’ll be able to participate in our official May 2 release party for the Companion (details to follow).

This excerpt from Daniel’s chapter deals with The Fugs, a seminal East Village punk band:

The group (whose name is a euphemism for “The Fucks,” borrowed by Sanders from the pages of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead) was composed variously and often interchangeably of poets, playwrights, folk artists, and Dionysian political activists. Included in its shifting line-up were such figures as Steve Weber and Pete Stampfel (founders of the terrific anti-hippie hippie band The Holy ModalRounders), Ken Weaver, Tuli Kupferberg, Szabo, and Al Fowler – who, in his timeless poem “Caroline: An exercise for our Cocksman Leader,” wrote, “I saw the hot eyes of my young daughter / rolling in passion / her body writhing naked / groping thru my pants and shorts / feeling for her daddy’s prick.” This hilarious if ultimately throw-away poetry anticipated in some small part punk’s fast and furious aesthetic.

The Fugs’ first album (titled initially in 1965 The Village Fugs – Ballads and Songs of Contemporary Protest, Points of View and General Dissatisfaction, and, in its second incarnation with ESP Records in 1966, The Fugs First Album) blurred boundaries between high and low culture. The Fugs First Album included sung versions of William Blake’s poem “Ah Sunflower” next to super-stupid proto-punk anthems like “Boobs a Lot” (with its immortal refrain “Do you like boobs a lot? Yes I like boobs a lot”) and nihilistic songs such as “Nothing,” which is especially rich, as it were. The song begins despondently: “Monday nothing, Tuesday nothing, Wednesday and Thursday nothing, Friday for a change a little more nothing,” then moves on to “poetry nothing, music nothing, painting and dancing nothing … fucking nothing, sucking nothing flesh and sex nothing” and ends with Sanders shouting: “Nothing! nothing! nothing! NOTHING! NOTHING!” These insistently negative chants resonate with any number of American and English punk refrains from Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation” (with its chorus “I belong to the blank generation / And I can take it or leave it each time”) to The Sex Pistols’ “No future, no future, no future for you” (from their song “God Save the Queen”) to X-Ray Spex’s song “I Can’t Do Anything” (“I can’t write / And I can’t sing / I can’t do anything”) to Lydia Lunch and 8 Eyed Spy’s “Lazy in Love” (“No time for you, yeah, rip roar fandango / lazy in love, i’m just lazy in love / … lazy in love ugh”).

These anecdotes suggest in part why musicians like Lunch, Smith, and Hell were drawn to the poetry scene in the neighborhood. They also suggest why poetry could be an art-form that existed most vibrantly not on the page but on the democratic, anarchic stage, and why it could, at least in some small measure, feed into the growing music culture percolating in the East Village. …

Next: Robert Lawson-Peebles