The Raw and the Cooked: Robert Lowell and the Beats

Year

2005
"The best obfuscation bewilders of meaning while reflecting or intimating or creating a structure of a beauty that we know." —Bernadette Mayer

"The raw and the cooked" is how Robert Lowell characterized the state of American poetry in 1960 when he accepted the National Book Award for his collection, Life Studies. With its intense emphasis on the personal and its shorter, free verse lines, Life Studies was a departure for the poet. Something less fettered was happening in Lowell’s poetry, and as he saw it, that something was cleaving the genre of poetry in two.

"Cooked" poetry, he contended, was "marvelously expert and remote... constructed as a sort of mechanical or cat-nip mouse for graduate seminars." Poets like Donald Hall and Louis Simpson were among its chefs. In contrast, Lowell regarded the "raw" as "jerry-built and forensically deadly...often like an unscored libretto by some bearded but vegetarian Castro." Lowell’s image of a barbed Communist was meant to conjure a vision of Allen Ginsberg, whose Howl had, fours years earlier, reinvigorated poetry for a younger generation. Ginsberg and other Beat poets, like Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, were emerging from the margins, armed with open, jazz-infused songs of a whole new timbre. Champions of Whitman, the Beats celebrated themselves and their everyday lives, and took poetry from the podium to the street. By virtue of pitting the Beats against "cat-nip" academics, Lowell was publicly declaring them to be a force.

Although a descendant of the "cooked" tribe of meter and rhyme, Lowell had been writing in an increasingly confessional vein. At a crossroads in his own work, he was riled by the Beats’ "raw" sensibilities. "Hanging like a question mark" between the two camps, "I don’t know if it is a death-rope or a life-line," he wrote in a draft of his now famous acceptance speech.

While Lowell’s characterization may strike us today as somewhat dramatic, it aptly captured the creative and cultural tensions of the time. There was a palpable "us vs. them" climate that pervaded poetry and many other aspects of the larger post-fifties society. It was optimism vs. skepticism, complacency vs. complaint, sweetness vs. dissention. The polarity between the establishment and those who opposed it intensified and culminated in the social revolutions of the sixties. By then, the Beats would be lauded as heroes of the counter-culture and legitimized as luminaries of a literature in flux.

Seventeen years after his "raw" and "cooked" proclamation, Lowell did a joint reading with Allen Ginsberg at New York’s St. Marks-in-the-Bowery. The poets shared a podium—a hint that, in the interim, the battlelines had blurred. Gregory Corso rambunctiously heckled Lowell as he read his poem, "Ulysses and Circe." "Robert, you left out that great line about paranoid," Corso called out. Lowell responded with a quick "Point taken" and continued. "You treat us like a classroom," Corso shouted. Lowell responded that he, in fact, was a teacher and tried to let it go at that. The event was shaping up like a lopsided showdown when Ginsberg finally stepped forward and proposed that the crowd collectively invite Corso to "shut up." They did and Corso amicably exited, boots in hand, wife and baby at his side. To Lowell, the reading had turned into a veritable "happening." In retrospect, it signaled a reprieve. The "raw" and the "cooked" were no longer warring, and the tribes needed new names.

So what happened between 1960 and 1977? In one sense, the outsiders made it inside and the whole culture got "rawified." The media, as arbiter of popular culture, brought the Beats and the sixties’ movements to the fore. "Raw" writers challenged the establishment, changed it, and then became part of it. They taught university, went on television and became counter-culture celebrities. They didn’t so much as "sell out," as did the broader culture "buy in"—not necessarily to a new crop of values, but shrewdly to the appeal of those values. Popular stereotypes alternately romanticized, trivialized or criminalized the Beat lifestyle and sensibility. Still, their edgy creativity was in step with the changing times in a way that the blue-blooded Bostonian Lowell’s was not. Marketers capitalized on the cultural trickle-down of the Beat image to hawk everything from peace to personal computers. Years after Jack Kerouac appeared on The Steve Allen Show in 1974, Nike would recruit William Burroughs and Ginsberg would endorse Apple Computers. Consumption is cutting edge, we all learned, if you package it as such.

You can’t, however, judge a book by its cover and good literature stands the test of time. The true legacy of the raw and the cooked divide (and what Robert Lowell foresaw) is that tension forced the canon to open up and accomodate a broader range of work. Poetry is, as a result, more vigorous and varied today than it was in 1960. Any contemporary American poetry course worth its salt today will include Ginsberg, Corso, and Lowell, alongside Lucille Clifton, Richard Wilbur and John Ashbury. Split factions persist, but in civil coexistence.


Source: Hamilton, Ian. Robert Lowell: A Biography. Random House, 1982.