Peter Valente: Notes on the Influence of the Work of William S. Burroughs & Brion Gysin on Certain Contemporary Writers

old armor because words are built into you – in the soft typewriter of the womb you do not realize the word armor you carry; for example, when you read this page your eyes move irresistibly from left to right following the words that you have been accustomed to. Now try breakup up part of the page … —William S. Burroughs

With the renewed interest in William S. Burroughs’ work, including a forthcoming opera by journalist Carl T. Hall and musician Eric Chilton based on his work and new books such as Riccardo Gramantieri’s AIDS and Its Representation in the Works of William Burroughs and S.E. Gontarski’s Burroughs Unbound: William S. Burroughs and the Performance of Writing (Bloomsbury Academic), I was thinking of the relation of Burroughs’ work to contemporary poets and writers. I read the works of William S. Burroughs when I was studying the writers of the Beat Generation in my late teens. His novels and other writings were unlike the spontaneous bop prose of Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg’s Whitmanesque lyrical poems which eventually embraced a visionary Eastern mysticism. Burroughs did not take for granted the nature of the English language and its relation to the way we perceived the world; he examined the function of words. With the writer and painter, Brion Gysin, he developed the cut-up technique. Burroughs would write about the cut-up that

it’s a way of applying a painting technique of montage to writing, to words, and, in fact, it comes close to the facts of actual perception, particularly urban perception. For instance, if you walk around the block and come back to put down what you saw on canvas, what would that be? A jumble of fragments, right? Well that was the montage method in painting, and when people first saw it they said it was intelligible. But it wasn’t intelligible at all.

He also questioned the use of the personal “I,” years before the Language poets attacked the “I” as a bourgeoisie construct that led to a false perception of reality. So much of contemporary writing since the 1950s, from Concrete poetry to Language poetry and beyond, used the experiments first practiced by Burroughs and Brion Gysin in the 1960s, and extended them, creating new possibilities for the language.

William Burroughs, thinking of the relation of word and image, writes: “Remember that the written word is an image, we forgot this but we don’t have a pictorial writing. The written word is an image and paintings and writing were originally one and the same.” In my early twenties, influenced by my reading of Burroughs and Gysin, I explored the visual nature of language. This was even before, or during the very beginning, of my writing poetry. My procedure was this: I would take a page on which I wrote a poem or some prose; I would cut out the words, or sometimes the actual letters of individual words; then I would cut out those letters or fragments and tape them to a blank page and burn the page, starting from the center outwards, making sure, of course, that I would not burn the whole page; then I would tape a blank page to the bottom of the “burned page” and insert both pages into a typewriter (I didn’t have a computer at the time); I would then write onto the “burned page;” finally, I would make a photocopy of the entire thing. Here are some examples:

In the first and third image, one can see words and sentence fragments disrupted by black spots as if the entire page is burning up. The second image is entirely abstract; letters appear like drops of paint on the page. This image could be described, despite the black and white color, as “a great blue open vibrating soundless hum.” In any case, the “meaning” is entirely contained in the visual. One experiences this writing primarily as visual.

Murat Nemet-Nejat is a contemporary poet that also approaches language visually. The following excerpt is a kind of visual game, where the eye sees double when looking at the words on the page:

s p i n i t u a l  w o r d s  s p u n n i n g  i n  b o d i l e s s  l i g h t            

                                l i g h t l y ,  w i s h f u l l y  w h i s t f u l l y ?  w h i s p f u l l y  –

                                w h i m f u l l y ,  –  w h i p f u l l y  w h a m f u l l y  -?  w h e r e f u l l y

                                w o m b f u l l y  w h i c h f u l l y  w h o r l f u l l y ,  e t c .

A quick glance will see “spiritual” but the word is “spinitual.” Not “spinning” but “spunning.”  This reminds me of the exhaustive experience that can be a result of the dizzy ecstatic vertigo that a lover in Sufism experiences when he is rising to a higher spiritual plane. Words are no longer part of a familiar language. We are in a spiritual plane, a “bodiless light.” Absence of Ego. There is the suggestion of birthing in “wombfully,” there is whim in “whimfully,” which suggests an impulse or passion,“whipfully whamfully” (this is the violence [in spirituality and love] that is the heart of Sufi sensibility; the violence is sublimated as a cosmic principle), time is obliterated in the poem, suggested by “wherefully” (another Sufi principle), and there is the helix in “whorlfully” which suggest dizzying movement. The entire poem suggests an ecstatic experience just beyond language. Visually, the poem succeeds in disorienting us, giving us a taste of that ecstatic vertigo. This excerpt appears like a kind of cut-up and the spacing of the letters disorients us, by creating a kind of visual response before one actually reads the words. Language straddles the fence between the real and the unreal, between sound and sight.

Clark Coolidge, an older poet aligned with the New York School and Language Poetry, also approaches language visually. His early work, collected in Space (1970), from which this poem was taken, explored the possibilities of words as visual and sound structures:

In the poem above Coolidge is using the page much as a visual artist would use the canvas, Coolidge examined the ways in which words give form to the blank page. The poems achieve this condition of music, abstract and subjective, but not without meaning for the ear and mind. Meaning, instead, is a function of the syllables, the sound as thought in motion. The poem also has a visual presence, the words divested of their familiar positions in the grammatical order which generates conventional meaning, are launched into the open spaces of the page, where they draw attention to themselves as musical motifs in a composition.

Another notable example may be found in THE CENSUS OF PUERTO RICO by Coco Fitterman & Victor Torres Rodriguez, recently excerpted in Tripwire Journal. Here are two images from the piece:

The authors write about the piece:

This text is part of an ongoing poetic translation of the US War Department’s ‘1899 Report on the Census of Porto Rico.’ We reimagine how this document is read by abstracting the original text into its basic units of letters and spaces. Our translation of the document’s (con)text fragments the cohesion of the census documents, questioning its authority over the land and the people that it categorizes into quantifiable data sets.

This is a visual space with political ramifications. The space of the page can be thought of as the land (Puerto Rico) where people are just sets composed of letters, almost randomly placed on the page. The image suggests the isolation that comes with being simply a number on a census. Of course, the order of things is always maintained by erasure, destruction, induced lack of memory, detention, punishment; the visible, as the State, is given priority over the invisible, the migrant, and asserts its dominance by the use of techniques of violence (against women, against children, against non-white men and women, against animals, against the planet as a whole) and surveillance against those who’s gestures and appearance are not socially accepted and considered inferior. Fitterman and Rodriquez destabilize and disrupt the cohesion of the official document.

Ted Berrigan used cut-up and collage in The Sonnets. Tony Lopez writes, in “‘Powder on a Little Table’: Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets and 1960s Poems,” that

Berrigan’s inventive appropriation of the sonnet sequence (as opposed to the free-verse confessional lyric), or the American ‘open form’ serial poem) and his textual collage-recycling of various found materials have obvious connections with the practices of 1960s New York artists such as Rauschenberg and Warhol, who combined imagery from high art with that of contemporary news and popular culture by means of industrial image-reproduction processes (the so-called ‘silkscreen paintings’).

Of course, Burroughs’ initial work with cut-up and collage in the 1960s, along with Brion Gysin, opened up new possibilities of meaning through disorientation. For Burroughs, this was Rimbaud’s systematic derangement of the senses. Here is Berrigan’s Sonnet XVII:

Each tree stands alone in stillness
After many years still nothing
The wind’s wish is the tree’s demand
The tree stands still
The wind walks up and down
Scanning the long selves of the shore
Her aimlessness is the pulse of the tree
It beats in tiny blots
Its patternless pattern of excitement
Letters birds beggars books
There is no such thing as a breakdown
The tree the ground the wind these are
Dear, be the tree your sleep awaits
Sensual, solid, still, swaying alone in the wind

The sonnet has the feel, when you’re reading it, of a series of fragments. On the surface the poem’s subject matter is lyrical: it mentions “wind,” “trees,” a “breakdown.” But reading the poem it doesn’t have the fluid rhythm of a lyrical poem. Each line reads more like a statement with no inherent direct relation to the next line. And yet “meaning” though destabilized seems to cohere in the mind. As if there is resistance to the irrational. Burroughs was aware of this problem which is why he obsessively used the cut-up to attempt to short circuit the mind’s desire for meaning. When you a read a cut-up the meaning is not obvious; or rather, the cognitive function is destabilized. Burroughs would write: “Exterminate all rational thought.” For Burroughs and Gysin, when you cut into the word/image you create a kind of vibrating space that emerges from the language. You’re aware of some other realm that language posits; in Berrigan’s sonnet, it is the “patternless pattern of excitement /Letters birds beggars books.”

Johnny Stanton’s Mangled Hands recently reissued by Tough Poets Press (originally published by Sun & Moon in 1985) also uses the cut-up style of Burroughs. He creates a novel that is like a wild comic book for adults. It’s filled with fabulous and strange creatures such as invisible animals and birch trees that come alive. It is a book where both humans and monsters are transformed. This transformative quality is characteristic of Burroughs’ novels from the Nova Trilogy, which included The Nova Express, The Ticket that Exploded, and The Soft Machine. Here’s an excerpt from Mangled Hands:

I woke up chewing away at my elkskin robe. I decided to bury it at the bottom of my hole, then I cleaned the snake slime from between my toes…the magic inside my feet was gone. It was just after dawn when I heard noises inside Wrinkled Black Skin’s kettle. I listened carefully…I could barely make out the sound my other father’s voice, which was talking to the voice of my mistress. Their voices together sounded like the rustling of many tobacco leaves, so I couldn’t understand them very well

In a flash I was dragged out of my slime hole. Snake Tooth raced my manhood through our village run. He was in a hurry. I could tell because I was thrown back into my hole in practically no time at all. Snake Tooth didn’t even bother to open his chest and dance on my manhood…

It is a book of magic with battles between that which is invisible and that which can be seen. Often the two change places. It is book of constant metamorphoses. Nothing is stable. Entropy rules the day. It is a wild and poetic fantasy, with the feel of Burroughs’ prose, where reality and unreality mix to create a unique alchemy that is Stanton’s secret.

Dodi Bellamy’s The Letters of Mina Harker is another novel that was influenced by Burroughs’ work. In the following excerpt Mina/Bellamy states her poetics:

I am a post-punk Milton waging a one-woman war against structure, taste, logic and even words themselves the visceral insistence of my provocative finish decades from now geneticists will excavate my bones, scrape off brittle DNA and one of the great mysteries of the 20th century will be solved, that I Mina Harker am the lost princess Anastasia blue blood, blook block I stick my thumbs in my armpits, flap my elbows, strut in circles, jut my chin forward and back as I screech bawk-bawk-bawk bawk-bawk-bawk what animal do I remind you of?

Here Bellamy reclaims the war against structure, taste, and logic for herself. The italicized fragments throughout the book serve to destabilize the sentence’s structure. She also appropriated the cut-up technique in later works such as Cunt-Ups and Cunt Norton. In an interview published in American Microreviews and Interviews, Bellamy talks about the cut-up:

A cut-up is a form of collage developed by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, where you cut a page of text into four quadrants and rearrange the quadrants. It was a means of unveiling the true meanings behind the apparent logic of systems of control. Burroughs felt our minds were too programmed by pre-determined logic systems to see beyond those systems without some sort of radical intervention, such as the cut up. The cut up project that I assigned my students at the SF Art Institute—if I remember correctly—was to use quadrants from two different texts, to create a hybrid.

Robert Gluck, speaking about the New Narrative, writes, “In writing about sex, desire and the body, New Narrative approached performance art, where self is put at risk by naming names, becoming naked, making the irreversible happen—the book becomes social practice that is lived.” These ideas owe a lot to Burroughs’ writing. Indeed if it were not for the publication of Naked Lunch, and the liberation of the text from the chains of censorship, much of the writing about sex would not have been possible.

When I think of Asemic writing I think of the work of Brion Gysin. When William Burroughs’ friend, the writer and painter, Brion Gysin said, in 1959, that “Writing is fifty years behind painting,” he meant that while writing was still narrative, with story and plot, painting in the 20 century had moved beyond representational work and into abstraction. As a result, Gysin writes, “Perhaps there could be abstract literature, as abstract as is what we call abstract painting. Why not? We wanted to see.” He goes on to say, “We began to find out a whole lot of things about the real nature of words and writing when we began to cut them up. What are words and what are they doing? Where are they going? The cut-up method treats words as the painter treats his paint, raw material with rules and reasons of its own. Representational painters fucked over their paint until they made it tell a tale. Abstract painters found that the real hero of the picture is the paint.” In the following image, we can see Gysin’s exploration of language and the visual in an attempt to open up the spatial nature of words by destabilizing the cognitive and temporal understanding of its relation to the visual:

Language and the visual marks fuse to the point where one cannot tell the difference. Permutations in the phrase “to say good silence by” dissolve into a series of swirling marks that have a resemblance to the visual dimension of the Arabic language that is more than fleeting: in Arabic or Ottoman Turkish (written in Arabic script which has ties to calligraphy) there are paintings made of Allah’s name. The following example of Asemic writing is by Cecil Touchon (2020):

Asemic writing is purely aesthetic though it does resemble language like Gysin’s piece. But where Gysin contains verbal content (the variation on a phrase) Touchin’s “writing” has dispensed with any meaning outside that represented by the image. Burroughs has written that we must “detach ourselves from word forms – this can be accomplished by substituting for words, letters, concepts, other modes of expressions: for example color. We can translate words and letter into color – Rimbaud stated that in his color vowels, words quote ‘words’ can be read in silent color. In other words, man must get away from verbal forms [my emphasis], to attain the consciousnessthat which is there to be perceived, at hand.” Extending this view of Burroughs, Satu Kaikkonen writes about asemic writing, in SCRIPTjr.nl, “Regardless of language identity, each human’s initial attempts to create written language look very similar and, often, quite asemic. In this way, asemic art can serve as a sort of common language—albeit an abstract, post-literate one—that we can use to understand one another regardless of background or nationality. For all its limping-functionality, semantic language all too often divides and asymmetrically empowers while asemic texts can’t help but put people of all literacy-levels and identities on equal footing.”

Rereading the work of Burroughs and Gysin was the initial inspiration for this essay. When I first read their writing, I was unaware of much of contemporary experimental poetry and fiction. I realize now that they were pioneers in the study of language through the cut-up and that this was a foundational step that influenced experimental poetry from the 50s onward. This is because of their concern with language and the representation of reality. Most experimental poets and novelists are well aware of the ways in which reality is framed based on the language that is used. We have seen, since Language poetry, a significant break with the lyric tradition in American poetry, the hauntings of the iambic pentameter. Language poetry was so much about the derangement of the senses. The field of poetry, what you could do with words, was significantly widened with the experiments of the Language school. But in the work of Dodie Bellamy and Johnny Stanton, one can also see, as well as the use of Burroughs’ techniques, the extension of some of his themes: the use of fragments, sexuality, strange bodily transformations, disjunction of forms, temporal disruption. Burroughs and Gysin were aware in the late 50s that language needed to be cut up, the frame broken, to let the outside in and this realization would have long standing consequences for much of the writing in the 20th as well as the 21st century.

Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of eleven full length books. Forthcoming is a collection of essays, Essays on the Peripheries (Punctum, 2021), and his translation of Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2022). He’s presently working on editing a book on Harry Smith.

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