Megan Keeling profiles Elise Cowen, a female Beat poet who wrote in a community in which “only a few women were recognized as artists, and most were not deemed to possess the talent or creative soul required to produce art”:
Today she is most famous for being Alan Ginsberg’s experiment in heterosexuality, and the typist of his poem “Kaddish.” Beat scholars place her as the footnote in the Legend of Ginsberg: a devoted follower of the poet who lived in his intellectual shadow. Others have written her as a tragic-women-poet figure (she suffered from mental illness most of her life, and committed suicide at the age of 27.) But there is more to her story than that. Her surviving poetry shows a unique perspective on the rigid cultural conformity of the 1950s and also the fringe artistic community of the Beat Generation.
I took the heads of corpses
to do my reading by
I found my name on every page
and every word a lie. …
After her death, Cowen’s family destroyed much of her poetry and writings, describing them as “filthy.” Her poems cover much of the same topics as the male Beats- spirituality, homosexuality, drug use and madness, among many other things. However, as a woman (and a queer one at that) she was too far on the margins even for the Beats. [Author Joyce] Johnson writes: “I’d show her the stories I was writing, but [Elise would] never show me her poems. ‘I’m mediocre,’ she told me, pronouncing the word in an odd hollow French way.” When her poetry was published, it was largely due to the efforts of her friends, especially Leo Skir, after her death. The first collection of her poems will be published this year.