Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


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Friday, April 1, 2011

Hippie

Even now, at the head of the page, I find the word most annoying. Though I went to San Francisco in the summer of 1967, though for some months I actually lived at the corner of Haight and Ashbury (in an apartment, though I would not be surprised to meet someone who lived in the actual intersection), though I sport beads and a Paisley vest handmade by my lover in my first passport picture, though I remain profoundly influenced by ideas of “hip,” I cannot stand that diminutive term. (The word passed into common usage after Herb Caen began using it in his column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Caen had also invented the equally obnoxious and derisive “beatnik.”)

Not that “hippie” has no place. In my own memory, before I saw the word in print, I heard it used to describe young teens who aspired to be hip and were just becoming acquainted with the scene, not so different from the sort of person who might have been labeled a “teenybopper” in the context of musical taste. As such the word had a useful niche, but failed to describe the counter-culture in general. Despite my distaste for “hippie,” I had no good alternative. In the sixties “hip” served for some uses, though sounding slightly broad and old-fashioned. I do recall both both “freak” and “head” (referring, naturally, to “pothead”) having some currency, but neither seems really adequate.

Born in 1946, I grew up reading the Beats, attending Paul Carroll’s poetry series at Second City, seeking out Old Leftists, and learning about Dada. In university I participated in the literary magazine and attended performance events and shows staged by friends. In spite of loose talk about “the sixties,” during my senior year at an institution with tens of thousands of students, I felt I knew the local counterculture: far-out intellectuals, dopers, artists, radicals, anarchists, yogis, sandal-makers, and singers. Virtually everything innovative seemed linked to this crowd. Forward-thinking professors and faculty artists made alliances with the hip youth. Just as Kenneth Kenniston’s studies indicated that, for the most part, student protesters were the very same who had been at the top of their high school classes, many of those participating in middle and late 60s youth culture struck me as unusually thoughtful and productive. Why, even LSD trips were assimilated only through hours of analysis based in part on Scientific American articles and anthropology studies seen in the light of esoteric Buddhism. I was taken aback just a few years later when I heard of people dropping acid to go to a concert or party.

Thinking I knew the scene in my major Midwestern university, I was surprised and I believe I recoiled when in the spring of 1967, a crew of slightly younger celebrants tripped across the university quadrangle, blowing soap bubbles in celebration of Buddha’s birthday.

These new folks seemed to be violating canons of cool, while on the national scene, it was obvious that Peter Max was instantly kitsch, Tim Leary at best an entertaining con man, and, late in the day, cooptation seemed fully accomplished when Hair premiered, claiming to be a “tribal, love-rock musical.” Its tunes can now be heard in elevators while the really radical grass-roots theater has vanished to limbo along with underground movies. In 1967 when I made it to the Haight, the kids who liked rock and roll and smoking pot, however genial, had little in common with the people I had known at college who preferred electronic music, Tibetan folksong, or, at any rate, down and dirty blues. Only a few months later the Diggers, who ought to have known, were to proclaim the death of hippie on Haight Street.

Still, it certainly seemed as though the movement, however vaguely defined, had something to say about every area of life: not merely art and politics, but also interpersonal relations, cuisine, and living room design. How many apartments did I enter with a huge cable spool for coffee table, beaded curtains, and Indian bedspreads? I remember a slightly older poet’s reminiscences of San Francisco only a few years before I (and a horde of my cohort) hit town. He described how he and his friends would often get stoned and eat “phony-burgers,” made with supermarket hamburger buns, ketchup, onions, mustard, pickles, everything but the meat. A few years later no one would have dreamed of eating Wonder buns; every kitchen held brown rice and vegetables.

I won’t aim here to define hip beyond a few sketchy outlines. Hip is a form of twentieth century Romanticism, celebrating the unconscious, the natural, the ecstatic while striking a counter-cultural pose with bohemian habits and left politics. Hip participates in the double vision DuBois analyzed in African-Americans, also evident in kitsch, camp, and other modern forms of irony. Susan Sontag located the essence of camp in her 1964 essay as occurring in the gap “between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice,” in other words, between signifier and signified.

Authentic hipness requires the pose at least of a vision sharper and more piercing than others’. That’s what makes it so annoyingly elitist. One can always take irony around yet another turn. In contrast to this off-putting and esoteric claim, hippie was accessible to all, its wardrobe available not in military surplus or Salvation Army stores, each individual his own invention, but in standardized sets at Sears.

3 comments:

  1. Norman Mailer was an enthusiastic exponent of "Hip" in the '50s. He saw the "hipster" as one of an elite that operated invisibly - unobserved by the "square" world that toiled cluelessly.

    Mailer's binary vision faded as he watched squares fly to the moon while Miles Davis cast off Italian suits and pulled on bell-bottoms.

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  2. ah, yes.
    there was a time when i sensed the opprobrium of the slang term -- hippie.
    now, at twice the age of anyone you should trust, i embrace it (although, curiously, the spelling "hippy" drives me bananas (unsmoked).
    i free associate hippy with dippy, while hippie -- after all these years -- takes on a veneer of nostalgic familiarity.
    it helps that i was born and grew up in san francisco & the peninsula's mountain view, and herb caen was my idol, among a stable of Chronicle favorites (McCabe, Delaplane, et al).
    i've gone on to write my own caenish column of three-dot journalism in telluride for the past 30 years.
    i'm kind of proud that Caen invented hippie and beatnik -- the two counter-cultural movements i subscribed to, as one of those on-the-cusp post-warII-boomers (conceived in war and born in peace). on the Crow Rez as a Vista volunteer the hostiles called me "beatnik", as though i should be ashamed :>)
    i remember the haight when it was st. agnes parish and a russian/irish neighborhood.
    i marched in the diggers' death of the hippie parade, when we closed down haight street -- something the irish cops at park station were never happy about (some of them my old seminary classmates).

    but unlike you, william, my much esteemed colleague and friend, i'm a west coast type. i dig pop culture. but read SA and esoteric journals, love jazz and not much reggae, "high" bohemian culture (however [en]countered). i loved the low and the high manifestations of the movement.

    the movement -- that's an apt phrase. for me, trained in thomastic philosophy & existential phenomenology, the Sixties was a movement. and, in SF, it was the old bohemians morphing into the beatniks of north beach into the hippies, diggers, flower children -- and today's Rainbows (where the Haight & the Movement lives on). there was a whole lineage that the Sixties sprang from.

    and in the overlaps, phonyburgers mixed with soyburgers, safeway parking lots with whole food patios (although in those pre-corporate days, health food stores were locally owned).

    your take on hip, like any fractal scan, has a version of the elements, accurate from your vantage -- although from my wing of aging hippie intelligentsia (aka paleohippies -- anyone old enough to have survived the Sixties' many pitfalls and experiments gone awry and thrived into the new millenium of the Christian Era), i'd surely add in bioregionalism and deep ecology's influences a la Gary Snyder, Peter Berg, and Dolores LaChapelle.

    and i'd substitute "entheogenic" for "unconscious" -- as the seeking by hip folks of the spiritual dimension, lost in the 20th Century's industrial growth society imperative of capitalist/communist materialism, was most manifest in psychedelic drug use (whether guided and intentional as you describe or the more haphazard -- and dangerous -- experiments of solo youth).

    plus, the hip pose was mostly a macho stance reinforced by tv & magazine images. and the beat scene -- my own dulcimered hero Richard Farina wrote a novel with as posing a hipster as any Kerouac novel -- Gnossis Papadoupalis.

    but, truth is, among the flower children i knew, hip (the pose) had given way to hippie (the presence)-- a lifestyle without pretence, simple food, simple clothes, a sharing spirit (thank you, diggers & giveaway cultures), a move to the country and partnership energy among the many genders.

    not that i'd pretend that was the whole movement, but it was and is a wing. while the hip pose seems to have lived on mostly in the boardrooms of media and advertising.

    and somehow, for all your sharp-eyed focus (thank you for this), i don't think i'd end a reverie re: The Hippie on "standardized sets", although i would admit the movement has its Drainbows as well as its Rainbows, still...

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  3. Really interesting perspective! You and your peers sound like they were much smarter and more interesting to be around than the hordes of annoying people that always get grouped with you. I wish I could have been there.

    :) Rock on!

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