Monday, August 22, 2011

"The Poem of Poems": Brion Gysin's disappearing act

This fair child of mine (roses and bitumen)
I make my old excuse:

He shall have the gift of song.
Praise deserves his beauty's use.
O, if thou couldst answer with studs of silver
this were to be new made!

What ease to our way
walled with silver, gold and beryl!
Excerpted from "The Poem of Poems"
Brion Gysin

While living in Paris at 9 Rue Git-Le-Coeur in the late 1950s, the artist and writer Brion Gysin accidentally sliced through some newspapers with a knife and became fascinated with the resulting jumble of text -- half of one sentence became the end of another, unrelated one. He began to experiment with this technique, slicing up newsprint, books, and other materials. He refered to these as "cut-ups," and when he demonstrated the process to William Burroughs, Burroughs asked if he could try it himself. "Go ahead, that's what it's for," Gysin replied.

Unwittingly, Gysin handed Burroughs a writing tool that he would use extensively in his career (The Ticket That Exploded, The Soft Machine, Nova Express and Exterminator). He achieved such infamy that Burroughs -- although he was careful to credit Gysin as often as possible -- became famous for the cut-up technique, while Gysin (whose multifaceted career as a musician, writer, painter, and calligrapher contines to defy categories) went on to write The Process (1971) and The Last Museum, an edited version of a much larger work about the fate of 9 Rue-Le-Coeur itself, published posthumously in 1986.

In order to show Burroughs the extraordinary possibilities of juxtaposing text-on-text, while in Paris Gysin experimented with the cut-up technique on audio tape (heard here) as well as print. Describing this in an interview published in Terry Wilson's book Here to Go: Planet R-101, Gysin says:

I suggested to William that we use only the best, only the high-charged material: King James' translation of the "Song of Songs" of Solomon, Eliot's translation of "Anabasis" by St. John-Perse, Shakespeare's sugared "Sonnets" and a few lines from "The Doors of Perception" by Aldous Huxley, about his mescaline experiences.

The result -- as can be expected from such diverse sources -- is at once mysterious and glorious, beautiful, and maybe the finest example of the cut-up process Gysin himself created. Unfortunately, it was never published in its entirety during his lifetime. An excerpt appeared in the Burroughs/Gysin cut-up collaboration The Third Mind (1978) and mistakenly credited to Burroughs -- once more undercutting Gysin's contribution.

The full text finally appeared in 2001. Jason Weiss' Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader helps to restore Brion Gysin's legacy, after so many of Gysin's works have become unavailable, hard-to-find, or have simply slipped out-of-print. There are excerpts from his first published novel in 1947, five chapters from The Process, a scene from Gysin's unpublished script forNaked Lunch.

There is a large selection of his cut-ups, as well as uncollected magazine pieces, scores and lyrics, and reproductions of his unique calligraphy. Full texts are included of his permutated poems, "I Am That I Am" and "Junk Is No Good Baby," as well as "The Poem of Poems."

In one interview Gysin put his multimedia career in perspective by saying the art world thought of him as a writer, and the writers thought of him as an artist. "I should have been one or the other," he said, somewhat ruefully. By the 1980s, he was a performer as well -- he'd written for Broadway in the '40s, but here he was onstage singing new lyrics he'd written and describing himself as "the world's oldest living rock star."

It's all the more ironic that Gysin's work remains largely undiscovered in this multimedia age his work helped create. His legacy, long overshadowed by others of more fame or infamy, remains elusive as ever.

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