ARTAUD, GINSBERG AND THE CATHOLIC YAK: A Comparative Study by Benjamin Frater


There are three poets to be examined in this comparative study. All three utilise a unique system of poetry known as visionary poets, that is poetry or poetics informed by vision- hallucinatory or otherwise, These poets are Antonin Artaud, Allen Ginsberg and The Catholic Yak (Benjamin John De La Cruz Frater).

In the course of this visionary lineage, it is essential to mention and discuss the malignant and often malevolent versified disease that is Antonin Artaud. The most visible period for this poet’s visionary and episodic poetics is found in ‘Watchfiends and Rack Screams’, the final works of Artaud. It is important to recognize here that the phrase ‘Watchfiends’ is a Blakean term that represents the Romantic revolt against Empiricism. This is not to suggest that Artaud is by any means a romantic, but is rather more realist than most are prepared to admit. What appears metaphoric or symbolic is often the literal translation of schizophrenia or a major psychotic episode. The ‘Watchfiends’ reference to Blake is to endorse and emphasise the visionary experience of the poet. With Artaud the revolt is not simply against empirical values but rather is genuinely against psychiatry and its imposed modes of normality.

‘Watchfiends and Ratscreams’ was composed by Artaud during his incarceration at Rodez Asylum. It is as much translation of a psychotic episode as it is an indulgence in verse and regularly the two are indistinguishable and often detrimental to the reader: poet, critic or other. The invitation and appeal of Artaud for this period is his commitment to vision, notion of visions and its implications. There is no other poet who embodies or practises this more fervently. Blake himself would shudder at this poet’s capacity to versify the visionary experience. Artaud utilises the schizophrenic vernacular to express the human condition as ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’. It is a vernacular which dispenses with all the pleasantries including the grammatical ones. The complexity and enrichment of Artaud comes not from the registrar of language, this poet frequently uses particularly uses slang especially obscenitities. For example in ‘To Have Done With The Judgement Of God’ Artaud frequently makes reference to America as a nation indulgent in ‘sperm’ and ‘come’, in its incessant and unforgiving nature as a nation interested in ‘…the make and manufacture of soldiers.’ In the section entitled ‘Interjections’ the poet seems obsessed with the repetition of the terms ‘cunt’ and ‘pussy’: ‘pussy-toady and boss-pussy/ are the two sluttish vocables that father and mother/ invented.’ From this the reader is able to derive that we are dealing with a poet who finds his own nativity as repulsive and unforgivable. Thus the complexity of Artaud is in the arrangement of idea and its subsequent effect. In these instances idea is subject with infectious quality and capacity for destruction…particularly in the unsuspecting reader, ridiculously approaching Artaud from an academic perspective: n attempt that is both stupid and ignorant. It is the same stupidity demonstrated by psychiatrists that as Clayton Eshelman mentions in his critical introduction, attempted to define Artaud as no more than an ‘incurable undesirable’. For academics the result will be the same: though dead, here lies a poet who will continue not only to resist but revolt against all forms of institution.

The poet’s mission may be understood as visionary but it is also much more than that. He is Hell’s own missionary and dedicated to subjecting the reader to a hell that is viable and real. The way in which Artaud accomplishes this is through a unique poetics that subjugates the convention of the idea. For Artaud idea and vision are not mentalities or modes of consciousness at all, they are instead quite physical and parasitic entities that both occupy and feed on the body. For the poet the only exorcism is verse…for the reader, to view Artaud’s exorcisms in verse is to risk possession itself. This poet has a unique and remarkable ability to pass on the demons and demonic possession of his own form. For Artaud it is not enough for the vision/mentality/idea to exist on its own terms, in its own metaphysical or existential realm. Instead Artaud requires the entire experience to become visceral. The poetry/poetics must reproduce a devastating mental and physiological response. The poet schieves this with frightening frequency and accuracy, primarily through the notion of the Logos: the word become flesh, except that in viewing the work of Artaud, the word does not only become flesh, the word is flesh. For example in the poem ‘Here Lies’ the poet uses the lines ‘all of you beings/ I have to tell you that you’re always made me crap…’ From this one is able to appreciate that for Artaud language is not only a form of exorcism but more precisely defecation which physiologically locates an experience previously thought to exist only in thought and the modes of consciousness. This notion is more apparent towards the end of the poem with line ‘you crab lice of eternity.’ The word ‘eternity’ denotes religious or spiritual space, existence and condition, the words ‘crab lice’ an extreme bodily experience and condition. The conjunction, combination and intersection of the two opposing ideas/notions in the one line represents the poetics of Artaud simply to make the idea visceral. He takes this process further in a poem entitled ‘Artaud the momo’ when he says ‘…you don’t get the image/ which is at the bottom/ of my cunt hole.’ Once again ‘image’ which is a derivative of imagination and ‘cunt hole’ which is of the body combine and once again the idea becomes visceral. Artaud is as he describes himself in the same poem ‘…the severed member of a soul.’ The effect is the same: the word becoming flesh, the result is the word as a type of flesh.

Throughout ‘Watchfiends and Rack Screams’ Artaud successfully imposes through the  ‘schizophrenic vernacular’ his own psychotic plague upon the consciousness of the reader, in order to replicate and reproduce his own rotten experience. My inability to conclude effectively or appropriately about this poet and his final works is testament to the fact that this poet has completely absorbed the visionary and literal psychosis of the poetics of Atraud…which is the poet’s mission and devastation.

Also in this lineage of visionary poetics is the Beat Generation poet (Father) Allen Ginsberg. Unlike Artaud Ginsberg’s mission and poetics are not aimed at or determined to destroy his reader. By no means less visionary, the intention of poetry for Allen Ginsberg is to enlighten. As Paul Portuges informs us in his book ‘Allen Ginsberg’s Visions and the Growth of His Poetics of Prophesy’  ‘…his visionary experiences were not unlike the calling forth of the Hebrew prophets by their creator’ and his role would be to translate ‘a prophetic illuminative seizure.’ In 1948 Ginsberg experienced a number of Blakean visions, the most significant of which was Blake’s earthen voice reading ‘Ah Sunflower’ from the grave. Ginsberg experienced this voice as that of God. For him his instructions were now clear. It was a pivotal moment that would catalyse his life and poetry. It was also an experience that no amount of psychoanalysis would dislodge or counter. Although it may very well have been an auditory hallucination, in the system of poetics being dealt with here, there is no difference between the two: vision is vision regardless of origin.

It is quite clear that in the career of Ginsberg there is no work more significant or visionary than his 1956 epic poem ‘Howl’ It is a poem completely laden with vision, the visionary experience and its often difficult implications both social and poetic. It is a poem whose strophes are consistently loaded with the ‘…prophetic illuminative seizure’ spoken earlier. The poems with arguably the most famous first lines of the last half century: ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness/ starving hysterical naked…’ The poet in the first lines sets up his poetics. It is immediately clear that we are dealing with a poet and a poem informed by madness or rather the visionary experience. Although visionary, the poetics of Ginsberg are not the same intrusive mental insurrection exhibited by Artaud. Despite the fact that they originate from the same playground Ginsberg however comes to his audience not as an anarchistic and infectious poet, but rather as a teacher or guru, his own insanity is something he desires the readers to avoid. A point made very clear in a much later poem ‘After Lalon’ whose last lines read ‘Allen Ginsberg warns you/ don’t follow my path to extinction.’

The poem ‘Howl’ expresses a generational schizophrenia and hysteria. It is a collective episode. Throughout the work the poet collects and conveys instances of his own madness and those mad moments experienced by others, both those he knew intimately and those he only distantly observed. Ii is at times frighteningly autobiographical, other times biographical and always barbarously honest regardless of the nature of the experience. It consistently exhibits the poetics of vision and is constant versified vision. ‘Howl’ recounts many ‘…great suicidal drama…’ they are the poets own or those experienced by others. This informed vision is adequately pushed through a type of pentameter, the scansion of each strophe is compact, it is a  ‘…hideous spiritual music…’ (from ‘Death to Van Gogh’s Ear’) that sustains the poem.

After exhausting the experience of the individual (in its second section/phase) ‘Howl then turns to the incantations of ‘Moloch’ a societal figure and hellish entity. In this section Ginsberg confronts his audience with the vision of the Caananite fire god that children were sacrificed to (in the Bible). For the poet it is a persona that embodies all the ills of a society or perhaps expresses what he sees as a society’s ill with its own derangement. Moloch appears as ‘…sphinx of cement and Aluminium…’ that ‘…bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination.’ Here one is able to observe the poet making his vision corporeal. He has given the vision a character and actual substance. Moloch is also invoked as ‘Solitude! Filth! Ugliness!’ He is simultaneously ‘Children screaming under stairways…’ and ‘Old men weeping in parks.’ Ginsberg later continues with ‘Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream angels!/ Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker Moloch!/ Lacklove and manless in Moloch!’ The poet here is, after extreme vision, returning the experience to the body. This effort not only localises the imagination but also asks the reader to do as the poet has done and confront his or her own mind, despite and within the confines of the body.

In its third and final phase ‘Howl’ perhaps necessarily takes on a more sombre tone and it is as if our own madman has been medicated or the visionary is returning to earth after the height of epiphany. This section is directly addressed to Carl Solomon, a bughouse inmate Ginsberg met and conversed with during his stay at the Rockland state Psychiatric Hospital. This section is quite distinct from the first two, this is not to suggest that it has less zeal or energy but rather the poet is producing and projecting a different kind of energy. The syntax and scansion have been appropriately adjusted and relaxed subsequently conveying a more contemplative or meditative state. PERHAPS THERE IS SOME KIND OF RECOVERY HERE. The poet continues with his use of anaphora, each line beginning with ‘I am with you in Rockland’, each line detailing the experience of being hospitalised or incarcerated in the Bughouse. That is the generic consequence of madness or visionary experience. This section begins with the line ‘Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland/ where you’re madder than I am.’ It appears here that our visionary poet has in a state of repose and exhaustion finally met someone he could relate to and identify with. It is interesting and important that this person is essentially mad, for the entire poem this has been the direction of the poet’s sympathies. Carl Solomon and Rockland are both person and place ‘where the faculties of the skull no longer admit/ the worms of the senses.’ We witness Carl screaming in a ‘straight jacket’ and as Ginsberg says Rockland is a place where ‘fifty more shocks will never return your/ soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void.’ Here in this section of the poem we are reminded of the consequences of the visionary experience i.e. psychiatry and its atrocities. It is obviously more reflective but no less visionary. Its strength is in the insight offered by its honesty and realism. It is a fitting conclusion and grounds what has been an extraordinary poem written by an extraordinary and visionary poet.

The final poet to be examined in this comparative study is The Catholic Yak (Benjamin John De La Cruz Frater). The Catholic Yak’s most significant work is a book of poems entitled ‘Bughouse Meat’. It is not to sensationalise this poet or his work to mention the fact that this work translates a schizophrenic episode endured in the locked unit of Campbelltown Psychiatric Hospital. The Catholic Yak is the obscure child of two poet fathers, Artaud and Ginsberg. Like his fathers he exhibits and utilises a system of visionary poetics: a poetics informed by electroshock therapy and visual, auditory and tactile hallucinations. The subsequent poetry with a  relevant “hideous spiritual music” and zeal attempts to carry, convey and versify the same horrific experience of insanity on the “…same dreadful typewriter” as used by his poetic fathers. Like Artaud the Yak at times attempts the same intrusive mental insurrection and in an emulation of Ginsberg uses incantation or anaphora. Both techniques are employed to produce the “prophetic illuminative seizure…” spoken of earlier. This is no where more apparent than in the title poem “Bughouse Meat”, and no more obvious than in the second section. For the Catholic Yak, poetry is simultaneously confession and exorcism. In the  “My forearm” incantation section of Bughouse Meat, the attempt is to make the word flesh or a type of flesh through the atavistic logos of a lacerated forearm. Hence the opening lines “the dreamer who butchered his arm to challenge his reality, now butchers his reality to challenge his arm”. The poet remarks earlier that “ if theses things aren’t out they’re in/ and if they’re in they’re in big trouble”. For the Catholic Yak, poetry is the only shot and exorcism for hell-binding-hallucination. Most of the imagery presented is apocalyptic, particularly “…a Miltonian mutiny that groans toward the heavens” and “the un furling dragon abdomen with its five heads of blood and gristle.” My forearm” is later appropriately expressed as “MAW RAW MIND”  and finally “the impure amazement and living memory of “BLEEDING VEINS AND BEATING WINGS!” there the idea is made visceral, the word made flesh …a hell exorcised, madness versified, expressed and slightly resolved.