Monday, June 14, 2010

Spontaneous Prose

Meet the Bumbys.

Gill and Jill Bumby are performance artists who will give you a “fair and honest appraisal of your appearance” for just five dollars (what a deal!). They’ve been a hit at parties all over the city, and as you can see, their own appearances are hidden behind masks, wigs, bandanas and kooky glasses. The nature of their relationship (are they married? brother and sister?) and their true identities also remain a mystery (a Time Out New York article claims that Gill Bumby formerly worked on Wall Street, and I tried to friend him on Facebook for more clues, but he hasn’t responded yet). Bumby assessments involve a quick observation of their subject, followed by furious typing on typewriters. Poetic adjectives, declarative sentences, and arbitrary associations are punctuated by a rating from 1 to 10, and a stamp that declares PAID! (the Bumbys require payment upfront). My friends Bryan and Colin recently ran into the Bumbys at a party at the Brooklyn Library, and here is Bryan’s result:

Colin’s description is more concise:

The Bumbys’ gig reminds me of my time living in Shakespeare and Company, a bookstore in Paris (I’ll be writing more on this magical bookshop and the literary festival taking place in Paris this week), where shop residents would take the antique typewriter from the upstairs library out front and write spontaneous quick stories for passersby for a small fee. This week, I’m reading my book for my July review, The Typewriter is Holy, a history of the Beat Generation, and both the Bumbys' and Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” method (Kerouac famously wrote On the Road on a continuous scroll of paper in a three week burst of amphetamine-fueled energy) made me consider automatic writing’s history and how much I love the quirky effects of sketching with language. Do quick and immediate impressions of an image or idea with words provide some sort of intangible truth? Is the first draft always the best draft, as Kerouac claimed? In an age of computers and word processors, is spontaneous writing only authentic on a typewriter?

One place to start is with the automatic writing technique first used by Dada and Surrealist artists in the early 20th century. Influenced by Freud’s ideas on the subconscious, these writers and painters were inspired to try to connect with reality through the unconscious mind, writing or painting in a “stream of consciousness” style for a more “free” expression. André Breton, the principal founder of Surrealism, called "pure psychic automatism" the goal of art and writing (which would influence the Abstract Expressionist painters in the 1950s).

Irish poet William Butler Yeats, on the other hand, merged the poetic with the occult to rationalize his use of automatic writing. He was inspired most by the “psychic” aspect of his young wife’s writing when she acted as a medium: “What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after half dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piercing together those scattered sentences."

Another Irish writer, James Joyce, was extremely influential in the way that he expressed an interior stream of consciousness and eschewed punctuation and formal narration (particularly in Finnegan’s Wake) in favor of ideas, colors, and sounds. One of my favorite passages in Ulysses demonstrates an automatic technique at the beginning of the Proteus episode as Stephen walks along the Sandymount strand, thinking to himself and observing the beach around him: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane.

Jack Kerouac was interested in both Yeats’s “trance writing” and Joyce’s method of stringing together a list of words and sounds to achieve a sketch effect of an idea. In a letter to Alfred Kazin lobbying The Subterraneans for publication, Kerouac claimed, "I have invented a new prose, Modern Prose, jazzlike and breathlessly swift spontaneous and unrevised floods . . . it comes out wild, at least it comes out pure, it comes out and reads like butter." Kerouac defines and defends the spontaneous prose method in two essays: Essentials of Spontaneous Prose and the Belief & Techniques for Modern Prose. He includes a list of thirty rules to follow, the first is to keep “scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr (sic) own joy.”

Finally, another favorite example of spontaneous writing that comes to mind is the poetry of Frank O’Hara. A member of the New York School, which was closely associated with Abstract Expressionist painters like Pollock and DeKooning, O'Hara wanted poetry to be personal with spur-of-the-moment spontaneity in favor of expression of the artists voice and style over abstraction. In Jacket magazine, Russell Ferguson writes that “Kenneth Koch vividly recalls [O’Hara] sitting typing in the middle of a crowded party. Whatever was going through his head was precious. Frank was trying to run faster than ordinary consciousness.'” O’Hara wrote in what he called an “I do this I do that” style, and many of his poems are accounts of him walking around the streets of New York. Here’s an example from his Lunch Poems:

The Day Lady Died

by Frank O'Hara

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday

three days after Bastille day, yes

it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine

because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton

at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner

and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun

and have a hamburger and a malted and buy

an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets

in Ghana are doing these days

I go on to the bank

and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)

doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life

and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine

for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do

think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or

Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres

of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine

after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE

Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and

then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue

and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and

casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton

of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of

leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT

while she whispered a song along the keyboard

to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

What are your favorite examples of spontaneous prose? Have you encountered anyone like the Bumbys around town?


  1. Claire, I really liked your examples of spontaneous writing!! I'm interested in learning about Kerouac's rules for spontaneous writing. I wonder if I could do this in my high school American Lit class. What is the difference between spontaneous writing and stream of conscious writing? I think that Wolfe and Joyce were purposful and brilliant in appearing spontaneous with their stream of conscious writing. Anyway have fun in Paris!

  2. Bravo, Claire. It's not easy to seemingly effortlessly intermingle the lowbrow (myself, Colin) with the highly respected (everyone else) as you here have done. I thoroughly enjoyed. We should start some sort of spontaneous writing exercises ourselves, what what?

  3. Thanks for the write up good sir!
    - Your friends, The Bumbys