Yesterday I went to renew my library card at the University of Washington. I urged Roberta to accompany me because I wanted to visit the special collections library and get a look at Minutes to Go, the collection of cut-ups put together by Sinclair Beiles and including work by Beiles, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Brion Gysin. It is Gysin who is credited with developing the cut-up technique, which he discovered by accident when he was cutting some cardboard with his knife for some pictures he wanted to mount in his Moroccan apartment. There were some newspapers beneath the cardboard and he noticed that the knife had sliced them as well and that when he rejoined sentences and paragraphs surprising new images and meanings emerged. Thus began a whole new way of composition.
Although it wasn’t that new. Gysin was quick to point out that cutting up and collaging sentences and paragraphs is a technique that had been in long use by painters. George Braques and Picasso, for instance, liked incorporating everyday fragments of wallpaper and packaging, bits of wood and cardboard into their earlier Cubist paintings. Gysin also argued that T.S. Eliot’s seminal modernist work The Wasteland used collage, and the Dada poet Tristan Tzara had produced a recipe for creating poetry that involved cutting up words and putting them in a paper bag. Burroughs found the cut-up technique hugely exciting and called it a way to alter reality. Cut-ups lead to a pluralistic perspective obeying an unknown logic. They make explicit a psychosensory process that is going on all the time. “You remember Korzybski and his idea of non-Aristotelian logic,” Burroughs observed. “Either-or thinking just is not accurate thinking. That’s not the way things occur, and I feel the Aristotelian construct is one of the great shackles of Western civilization. Cut-ups are a movement toward breaking this down. I should imagine it would be much easier to find acceptance of the cut-ups from, possibly, the Chinese, because you see already there are many ways that they can read any given ideograph. It’s already cut-up.”
I would love to own a copy of Minutes to Go but the cheapest copy I’ve been able to find to date on Amazon is $164.97. And it’s a very slim volume. So I opted, at least for the time being, to go for the more economical route of reading a copy at the library.
The special collections library is located, appropriately, in the basement. It has a nice subterranean feeling to it. One is in the realm of the dead. The buried. The nearly forgotten. The ancient and rare. And added to all this Gothic ambience is the ritual of getting into the library. You have to fill out a little form at the desk in the entryway asking for your name and address and phone number. Then you are given a number inscribed on a piece of folded plastic, such as they give you in buffet style restaurants, so that the person who goes into the archives for your item will know where to find you. You must use a pencil, which they provide, not a pen. After you’ve filled out the form and left behind any valise or purse you might be carrying, the gate is buzzed and its latch released and you may enter the inner sanctum.
So it’s a bit fun to go view items there. A young Asian woman was sent to get Minutes to Go and returned a few minutes later with the slim volume encased in a plastic sheath. I felt a little nervous removing it because it was so fragile. The publication date, 1960, isn’t all that remote in time, but long enough for paper to begin to deteriorate. Why, I wondered, hasn’t this little book been republished a gazillion times since its initial release? What is it doing in a special collections library? Why isn’t it readily available at bookstores?
I love the work in this little book. One of my favorites is Brion Gysin’s “Open Letter to Life Magazine,” which was a cut-up of the article Life published on the Beats in 1959. “Sickle moon terror nails replica in tin ginsberg,” it begins. I love that. Don’t ask me why. I can’t explain it. The full letter is available online (click the title) and is one of the few works from this collection that I’ve been able to find published elsewhere. There are also some excerpts published in The Third Mind, a collection of essays about the cut-up technique by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin published in 1978 by the Viking Press.
Corso is the one contributor/collaborator who evinces some ambivalence over the technique. Because it is a technique. Putting together a cut-up is not unlike working on a car. You’re using source material you’ve chosen, but apart from that, the material does not emanate from you. If you think of poetry as the residual artifact of a visionary experience, this would be the opposite of that. The material does not come from inside you. But then, neither does language. What you find in the dictionary is a cut-up. A collage. All language has a mechanical aspect to it. Words are parts working like so many gears and cogs to provide movement and meaning. Each sentence is an engine with the power to raise the dead à la Frankenstein or animate a universe of cable and pulley in a cacophony of delirious trigonometry. Like it or not, no one ever wrote a poem that streamed out of their being with the purity of a spring. Not unless that poem wasn’t a language at all but a consortium of sounds with no meaning attached, a form of phatic communication similar to the caterwaul of howler monkeys or sorority girls.
That said, I do share Corso’s ambivalence. I enjoy doing cut-ups and fold-ins and exquisite corpses, I love collage, but there comes a point where you feel detached from the material. I like the romantic idea of an inner blue fire fueling a poem of soulful wholeness, a living entity of words that cannot survive disassembly and reassembly because it’s not a machine but a living breathing organism. A poem, in other words, that is genuine and sincere and writes itself with the guidance of angels and cosmic intuitions tied to a brilliance of deep down soulful effluence of myriad being. “The individual poem stirs in our minds,” Robert Duncan observed, “an event in our language, as the individual embryonic cells stirs in the parent body. The beginning of the poem stirs in every area of my consciousness, for the DNA code it will use toward its incarnation is a code of resources my life pattern itself carries; not only thought and feeling but all the nervous and visceral and muscular intelligences of the body are moved.”
Corso no doubt felt Duncan’s articulations when he wrote in the postscript to Minutes to Go: “… and so to the muse I say: ‘Thank you for the poesy that cannot be destroyed that is in me,’ for this I have learned after such a short venture in uninspired machine-poetry.”
I tend to shuttle back and forth, sometimes preferring the stream-of-consciousness, visceral outpourings one finds in Kerouac or Joyce, and sometimes preferring to get out of myself altogether and assemble something using chance strategies in an effort to tap into a larger universe than the one cooking in my brain. For what is a cut-up but a fondue of melted language?