Can’t Stop the Beat: the distinctive talents of ruth weiss

(Charles Kruger)

A couple of weeks ago I checked my phone messages and found myself  listening to a vaguely familiar voice: “Hello, Charles, this is ruth weiss.” It was the voice of an elderly woman, soft, somewhat cracked, and breathy with age, but unmistakably charismatic. “I’ve published a book, dear, can’t stop the beat, and I’m coming to San Francisco for a reading. At The Beat Museum. I hope you can come and write about it. You don’t need to call me back. I just wanted to let you know. November 3, in North Beach. Well, thank you then.”

I had talked with ruth once before, when I interviewed her for this article more than six months ago, but I was surprised and quite flattered she had remembered me and kept my phone number and called me. After attending the reading [watch here] and, especially after reading the extraordinary collection that is can’t stop the beat—collected work dating from 1958 through 1990 (with one 2010 postscript)—I am thrilled to the bone to have met this grand ol’ gal face to face.

Herb Caen dubbed her “the goddess of the beat generation.” A glance at the collection of photos featured in can’t stop the beat amply convinces that he had good reason. Resembling Edith Piaf, but very much her own personality, the photos reveal a woman of startling dramatic presence with the grace of a dancer. Had she stopped there, as model and dancer, weiss would have attracted plenty of attention. But then there are the extraordinary poems.

For the present collection, weiss has arranged several collections of poems to tell her personal autobiography. It works as poetry and as story.

The opening poem “TEN TEN” is named after the apartment she found on her arrival in North Beach for 10 dollars a month. (Later, in a bit of historical serendipity, inhabited by a fellow named Allen Ginsberg.) She introduces it thusly:

found my room on montgomery
1010 montgomery
10 dollars a month
with a light-well
and a shower steaming on the roof
through the fog

This stanza typifies many of weiss’s distinctive talents: the use of word repetition (montgomery/montgomery, 1010/10) and vowel repetition to create emotional excitement and the strong beat (she considers herself a Jazz poet), varied with an improvisational long line to create the sound of the shower steaming through the fog. Like bebop, it is deceptively simple, yet, with careful attention, opens up and out into increasing complexities and joy.

In the following three stanzas, she introduces Professor FOON. Note the fullness of story she achieves in a startling economy of words. We learn something of the professor’s history, his character, and the relationship of the older gentleman and the young girl that transcends language and, beyond that, she places it within the context of history and cultural interaction. She does this in four simply-worded stanzas of three or four lines each with, at most, five words per line. This is a thrilling virtuosity.

across the hall
professor FOON
kept music in a room

tongue click against tooth
a nervous habit
from near-miss of bomb
on his home in hong kong

butterfly  harp
I danced he played
kept us both
from being afraid

we spoke no english
i wrote in it though
and ate with chopsticks
but not pizza
ten fingers for that

The wonders continue. It is tempting to just quote more of the book, but I will stop here to describe what I can and urge you to read the entire tome. Please do.

The book continues with weiss’s 1992 collection I ALWAYS THOUGHT YOU WERE BLACK in which she explores her relationship with black folk and with jazz, beginning with her infancy when the nurse at the hospital wondered about her dark complexion and bluntly asks her mother if her father was black (“…it was the 20s/& jazz musicians were made most welcome in Europe…”).  She moves on through the family’s escape from the Nazis to her childhood in Harlem attending all-black schools to the jazz clubs of Chicago to Africa, celebrated in a series of short rhythmic Haiku-like poems that sent shivers up my spine and perhaps will do the same to yours.

Later in the book, you’ll find COMPASS, a journal of a road trip in Mexico, recorded without revision. It is, unequivocally, a beat classic, containing all of the best of the beat aesthetic.

The publisher’s blurb claims I ALWAYS THOUGHT YOU WERE BLACK and COMPASS to be “two masterpiece long form poems”. I concur.

Perusing Horst Spandler’s helpful introduction, with its references to Preston Whaley’s Harvard University Press book Blows Like a Horn, I learned something of the difficulties female beat writers have faced in finding their appropriate niche in the beat cannon. It is clear that scholars will long debate these matters.

In the meantime, I believe can’t stop the beat assures that ruth weiss will be appreciated and admired for generations to come as long as poets continue to love that beat.

I’m a fan now, for sure. I suspect you will be too.