Edith Sitwell

Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), 1959 – photo – BBC – via National Portrait Gallery, London

Allen Ginsberg to Lionel Trilling, September 30, 1964:

“Happy to hear you’re traveling. I visited Oxford in ’58 with (Gregory) Corso & read for the Henry Vaughan Society and stayed for a week with an Indian young poet Dom Moraes & met Edith Sitwell who was at the time very friendly  (said she adored Blake, Shelley and Whitman)”

from Richard Greene‘s Edith Sitwell biography (Edith Sitwell – Avant-Garde Poet, English Genius):

“In Oxford, Sitwell met two of the Beat poets, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Corso told her he was compiling an anthology to be illustrated with photographs of the poets in the nude. Sitwell declined his invitation to contribute . They were in town to give readings, including one at New College, a hotbed for the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament. Corso read out his poem (“Bomb”) -(“O Bomb I love you/I want kiss your clank, eat your boom”).Members of the college poetry society called him a Fascist and threw shoes. He retaliated by calling them a bunch of creeps. Ginsberg tried to explain the poem but ran into a wall of political orthodoxy, so he called them a bunch of assholes. Then both men walked out.

Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, circa 1957

Sitwell invited them to luncheon at the Sesame Club (her home at 49 Grosvenor Street, Mayfair, London),  They were several hours late. Quentin Stevenson went out to the street to look for them, appearing  at last, they announced that they were high.  Corso had brought a copy of his book Gasoline, with the inscription  – “For Sitwell….paeans, lyric hats, fennels, all for assured company…There’s the Empress Penguin, the King penguin, and the Ringed-neck penguin…Only penguin to have for pet is Ring-necked because all other penguins must be refrigerated, I had a dream last night that I had a tall regnant Emperor penguin, but no refrigerator…anyways with love…Gregory Corso, 1958”

In roll-necked sweaters and jeans they sat on other side of Sitwell and traded stories with here about the horrors of childhood. Perhaps in recognition of their recent adventure, the menu included an ice-cream dish – “bombe a la americaine”.

Sitwell wrote to James Purdy:

“They behaved with great courtesy.The poor boy with the sweet expression (Gregory Corso) had, he told me, been sent to prison, at the age of 17 for three years, for organizing a bank robbery! If ever, in my life, I saw anyone who had obviously been sweetened and in a way reformed, by such a terrible experience, it was that boy. I am sure he is a kind of haunted saint, a saint who has lost his way – for he has lost it. The other (Allen) looked like a famished wolf …in an interview given (to the New York Times) the poor boy who had been in prison said that at a recital he gave of his poems Paris, he had removed all his clothes, and recited as he was when he was born.”

According to (Elizabeth) Salter, the conversation moved from the worth of Aldous Huxley’s experiments with mescaline to the three (sic) younger poets’ use of marijuana to heighten sensibility. This surprised Sitwell who suggested that poets naturally had extreme sensibility as part of their equipment. When they left, they declared her an “angel” and she told them that they were the hope of poetry. She later wrote of Ginsberg that there was “no more important young poet, no poet of greater gifts writing at this time”

The day after their luncheon, Sitwell received a letter from an Oxford don (probably C.M.Bowra)  detailing the antics of Corso and Ginsberg – “I took to my bed and lay there with my mouth open pondering:.  A story went around Oxford that the Beats had offered Sitwell heroin but that she turned it down because it made her come out in spots. In late 1959, Life magazine included the tale in an article on the Beats, bringing down a savage letter from Sitwell – “This is the most vulgar attack, actuated by an almost insane malice..You had better apologize publicly, both to Mr Ginsberg and me immediately”. Ginsberg too denied  the heroin story and, knowing what was best for them, the magazine printed an apology on 8  February, 1960. The experience confirmed the opinion of the press that she had expressed to Graham Greene – Really, it is the lowest profession,  or do you think drug-trafficking is lower?. I doubt it.

Edith Sitwell was born on this day and died, December 1964, aged 77.

One comment

  1. I think it was F R Leavis who said that Edith Sitwell’s work was more concerned with publicity than poetry. She made a delightfully self-aggrandising contribution to the Burroughs “UGH” TLS correspondence in 1963 and died a year later. No connection, of course. Burroughs is said to have based the character of Lady Sutton-Smith on Beaky Edie.

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