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California Poetry: From The Gold Rush To The Present Powerful Beatnik Literature

California Poetry: From The Gold Rush To The Present By Dana Gioia

It’s classic iconic subculture reflections of California’s powerful beatnik literature. The early 20th Century generation of poets are the roots of the beat generation’s impact. Dadaism and Surrealism both had a large influence on the Beats. Dadaism criticized high-culture elitism. Surrealism altered Dadaist’s defiant nature into a positive sociocultural movement with a focus on subconscious revelations. With California the main epicenter of the beatnik impact, “California Poetry: From The Gold Rush to the Present” is an excellent poetry anthology inclusive of many groundbreaking poets that were the mainstays of that movement in addition to their predecessor foundational masters.

Included in the numerous famous poetry and poets in this anthology is the eminent beatnik Lawrence Ferlinghetti, co-owner of the one-of-a-kind City Lights Pocket Bookshop, now City Lights Books, in San Francisco and from 1953— the present, founder, publisher, and editor of City Lights Books. The following untitled poem, but popularly known as “In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see. . .” is a disorientating tie between centuries exposing human misery through the condemnation of the dehumanizing of civilized man.

In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see
the people of the world
exactly at the moment when
they first attained the title of
‘suffering humanity’
They writhe upon the page
in a veritable rage
of adversity
Heaped up
groaning with babies and bayonets
under cement skies
in an abstract landscape of blasted trees
bent statues bats wings and beaks
slippery gibbets
cadavers and carnivorous cocks
and all the final hollering monsters
of the
‘imagination of disaster’
they are so bloody real
it is as if they really still existed

And they do

Only the landscape is changed

They still are ranged along the roads
plagued by legionnaires
false windmills and demented roosters
They are the same people
only further from home
on freeways fifty lanes wide
on a concrete continent
spaced with bland billboards
illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness

The scene shows fewer tumbrils
but more strung-out citizens
in painted cars
and they have strange license plates
and engines
that devour America

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, [“In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see …”] from Coney Island of the Mind. Copyright © 1958 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Charles Bukowski, perhaps most influential to the subculture of Los Angeles, is also part of the middle and perhaps most read section of the anthology.

my old man

16 years old
during the depression
I’d come home drunk
and all my clothing–
shorts, shirts, stockings–
suitcase, and pages of
short stories
would be thrown out on the
front lawn and about the

my mother would be
waiting behind a tree:
“Henry, Henry, don’t
go in . . .he’ll
kill you, he’s read
your stories . . .”

“I can whip his
ass . . .”

“Henry, please take
this . . .and
find yourself a room.”

but it worried him
that I might not
finish high school
so I’d be back

one evening he walked in
with the pages of
one of my short stories
(which I had never submitted
to him)
and he said, “this is
a great short story.”
I said, “o.k.,”
and he handed it to me
and I read it.
it was a story about
a rich man
who had a fight with
his wife and had
gone out into the night
for a cup of coffee
and had observed
the waitress and the spoons
and forks and the
salt and pepper shakers
and the neon sign
in the window
and then had gone back
to his stable
to see and touch his
favorite horse
who then
kicked him in the head
and killed him.

the story held
meaning for him
when I had written it
I had no idea
of what I was
writing about.

so I told him,
“o.k., old man, you can
have it.”

and he took it
and walked out
and closed the door.
I guess that’s
as close
as we ever got.

Suzanne Lummis, a member of the West Coast Advisory Council for the legendary Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice where the famous Wednesday night gathering and the West Coast’s longest running free poetry workshop is held, is also included in this anthology. Her poetry is forceful, feminist and powerful.


In New York they think all of California
is like L.A. And they think everyone in L.A.
has a maid. And they don’t believe you if you try
to tell them. – Radio talk show caller

It’s true, here we are all blonde,
even in the dark, on Mondays
or in slow traffic.

Even in our off-guard moments,
startled by a passer-by,
we are young.

Here we are all privileged,
even in our sleep. At night
the maids hover like sweetly

tranquilized angels over
the glazed or enameled surface
of things, purring clean clean. . .

It’s all true. We girls sip lemon lime through a straw,
make love, Revlon our nails.
We take our long sleek legs out for a walk,
let them catch light.

When someone snaps, “Get real!“
it hurts us, actual pain like we’ve seen
in the news. So we throw beach robes
over our tans, and cruise down the boulevard
tossing Lifesavers into our mouths,
car radios singing am.

New York, is it true
that in the rest of the world it is winter?

Our state is a mosaic of blue pools
even the Mojave, and the palm trees
line up straight to the Sierra Nevadas.
And the surf comes down slow like
delirious laundry, even near Fresno.

New York, is it true that great cold
makes the bones ache as if broken?

We’re sorry we can’t be reached
by plane or bus, sorry one can’t pull
even the tiniest thing out of a dream.
We’re like the landscape inside
a plastic dome filled with water.

But turn us over, then upright.
No snow falls.

The book’s editors are Dana Gioia, Chryss Yost and Jack Hicks, each an outstanding literary artist in their own right. The anthology contains 101 authors across two centuries, with poetic styles ranging from haiku to ballads and progresses into an endless list of acclaimed poets from the region. Published in 2004 by Heyday Books and Santa Clara University, “California Poetry: From The Gold Rush to the Present” was Malibu’s April 2008 “One Book, One City” read.

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