“The Beatnik’s Heart is Tender”: Vernon Duke in Venice West

Beatniks from Venice West at LA City Hall

In a recent rambling conversation with Micaela Brinsley, who has a rare gift for drawing people out, I went on — and on, and on — about a poem from My Hollywood in which I imagine Sarah Bernhardt on the amusement pier at Venice Beach. I’ve written about my Venice diptych before, describing the area in which it’s set as “a fanciful corner of LA developed by the fanciful Abbot Kinney in 1905.” In my interview with Micaela, I add a bit to the picture, explaining that Venice is “a place that goes up and down in status rapidly. One decade it’s the worst part of Los Angeles, the next decade it’s the priciest.”

One of its low points, in terms of economic status, happened to coincide with its cultural renaissance. In the 1950s, Venice West became the hub of LA’s beatnik scene, Southern California’s answer to San Francisco’s North Beach. None of the poets who haunted the rundown seaside cafés of Venice achieved the status of Allen Ginsberg or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but they left their mark, and one of the institutions born of that moment — Beyond Baroque — is still a powerhouse in LA letters, hosting weekly workshops and readings.

If you care to revisit this mostly vanished beat paradise, you’re in luck. It’s the subject of a beautifully produced, fawning “ethnographic” study titled The Holy Barbarians (1959), written by Polish-born Jewish-American journalist and poet Lawrence Lipton (1898-1975). It’s also captured on film in Curtis Harrington’s truly eerie independent horror picture Night Tide (1961). And you can even hear some of the scene’s authentic sounds thanks to USC’s audiovisual preservation team.

But my favorite portrait of Venice’s beats belongs to the pen of another foreign-born observer, the jauntily wistful Vernon Duke. As part of his early-’60s cycle of LA poems, Duke presents us with a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a cultural dropout — perhaps Stuart Z. Perkoff? But then, why should I be surprised? Although he loved the good life, Duke was ever the bohemian at heart, and perhaps the sight of these youthful idealists, with dirt under their fingernails and heaven in their eyes, reminded him of his old ill-fated friend from Constantinople, the poet Boris Poplavsky. Read the poem below and then dip into the older bohemia of Russian Montparnasse with the help of Bryan Karetnyk’s new translation of Poplavsky’s Homeward from Heaven.

Beatnik (Venice, Calif.)

His ears stick out through stringy,
uneven, greasy hair.
Bedraggled with insomnia,
he hasn’t bathed all year.
His long arms dangle loosely
as through a toothless scowl
he wheezes out the blues or
simply emits a howl.
Pity virtue’s defender,
helpless and innocent;
the beatnik’s heart is tender,
his head, hidden in sand.
Upon a scuffed old drumhead
he rattles a tattoo
to drown out inner torment
and summon his own dormant
nirvana, pure and true.
“Remember?” No… he doesn’t…
He’s happy in his cell:
the vague eternal “present.”
Tomorrow is unpleasant:
a gaping door to hell.
His eyes are both concealed by
his bangs — a tangled knot…
Still, maybe he can see what
the rest of us cannot.

Beatnik (Venice, Calif.)

Он лопоухий, он лохматый,
Всклокоченная голова.
Бедняк, бессонницей измятый,
Не мылся месяц или два.
Он несуразный, он кургузый,
Зубов передних больше нет —
Тем легче прогнусавить блюзы
Иль просто взвыть на Божий свет.
Добра беспомощный защитник,
Ему стяжанье невдомёк,
И прячет простодушный битник,
Как страус, голову в песок.
На порыжелом барабане
Он бьет неверное tattoo,
Чтоб заглушить трезвон терзаний
И доморощенной нирване
Предать последнюю мечту.
«Ты помнишь ли?» — О, нет … не помнит,
Живёт для смутного «теперь»,
Забившись в угол свой укромный,
А завтра — анфилада комнат
И в ад зияющая дверь.
Хоть бородой лицо закрыто,
Из-за волос не видно глаз,
Но, может быть, ему открыто
Всё, что неведомо для нас.


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