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Notes Toward an Idea of Bohemia

The road to Bohemia ran through Bob Dylan in his mid-1960s incarnation and back to the beats, who read widely and dropped names with abandon. Those names formed a bread-crumb trail that took me to a European tradition dating to Baudelaire in the middle of the 19th century, blossoming after its fashion with Verlaine, Rimbaud, and les poètes maudits breaking the trail for all manner of Symbolists, Futurists, Dadaists, eccentrics, and iconoclasts, culminating in André Breton and the zany Surrealist crew that came together in Paris in the 1920s. This tradition has its own lineage. Ex nihilo nihil fit, as they say. The wandering scholar of the Middle Ages

obeyed only the "rules" of his own Ordo Vagorum or Vagantium, dictated more often than not by such "authorities" as Bacchus and Venus. The ideal of a free life in defiance of conventional morals, law and order, along with the sufferings that this life entailed, loosened his tongue to render pieces of immortal poetry in the Latin lyric of the Goliards or Vagantes. (Wieruszowski, The Medieval University)

China has a venerable tradition of poets whose lifestyles tended to be off the beaten path. They wrote poems that celebrated wandering and the pleasures of wine. Tang Dynasty poet Meng Hau-ran (689–740 A.D.) failed the civil service examinations and spent much of his life in retirement. Meng was a famous drinker. The story goes that a government official offered to introduce him at court, where he might get a position as a court poet. When the time came, Meng ran into a friend and they started drinking and talking. After a while the friend reminded Meng of his appointment. Meng blew it off, saying, "Oh, why bother. My job is to drink and enjoy myself." (Whincup, The Heart of Chinese Poetry)

Among Meng's friends was the younger poet Li Bai (also known as Li Po), who was one of the two preeminent poets of the era, their friend Du Fu (also known as Tu Fu) being the other. Here is Li's poem "For Meng Hau-ran" (tr. Whincup):

I love Master Meng. Free as the flowing breeze, He is famous Throughout the world.

In rosy youth, he cast away Official cap and carriage. Now, a white-haired elder, he reclines Amid pines and cloud.

Drunk beneath the moon, He often attains sagehood. Lost among the flowers, He serves no lord.

How can I aspire To such a high mountain? Here below, to his clear fragrance I bow.

A famous drinker himself, Li was married four times and led a wandering life devoted to the pleasures of wine, food, and good company. Legend has it that Li drowned when he fell from a boat while trying to embrace the reflection of the moon in the Yangtze River.

By way of origins

bohemian (n.) "a gypsy of society," 1848, from French bohemién (1550s), from the country name (see Bohemia). The modern sense is perhaps from the use of this country name since 15c. in French for "gypsy" (they were wrongly believed to have come from there, though their first appearance in Western Europe may have been directly from there), or from association with 15c. Bohemian heretics. It was popularized by Henri Murger's 1845 story collection "Scenes de la Vie de Boheme," the basis of Puccini's "La Bohème." Used in English 1848 in Thackary's "Vanity Fair."

The term 'Bohemian' has come to be very commonly accepted in our day as the description of a certain kind of literary gipsey, no matter in what language he speaks, or what city he inhabits .... A Bohemian is simply an artist or littérateur who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from conventionality in life and in art. ["Westminster Review," 1862] (Online Etymology Dictionary )

Henri Murger also called himself Henry Mürger and, finally, Henry Murger, variations adopted to appear "more elegant and noticeable." Murger and his circle were desperately poor, referring to themselves as "the water drinkers" because they could not afford wine. As a young man he wrote literary criticism before turning to hack work, anything for which he might be paid, cranking out prose "at the rate of eighty francs an acre." Murger gained recognition with Scènes de la vie de bohème (1845) and its sequel Scènes de la vie de jeunesse (1851). He received the Légion d'honneur in 1859, and a monument to him stands in the Jardin du Luxembourg, but he died almost penniless.

While Bohemia conjures images of Montmartre in Paris, New York's Greenwich Village, and San Francisco's North Beach, many cities boast Bohemian enclaves made up of struggling artists, contrarians, rebels, dreamers, cranks, flakes, and from time to time genius. Eccentricity in taste and fashion is a given, as are sexual freedom, a spirit of excess, fascination with what is forbidden, and general disdain for bourgeois norms and values. Literary precedents and establishments are viewed as fusty and effete, although what came before is not always summarily dismissed. Bohemian writers who go on to make their mark tend to be the ones who studied and assimilated the tradition before upending it as they went their own way.

At its best Bohemia can nourish a young writer by providing a kind of informal university through a community of kindred spirits eager to talk about books and ideas and willing to be hit up for coffee, a drink, or a place to crash when funds run short. Some fall too much into the social whirl and riotous living that go with a scene whose chronicles are filled with tales of would-be writers and artists who never quite made it, the ones who passed the days and nights in cafés and bars talking up poems and novels in progress or not yet begun that never came to fruition. Beat bohemian Gregory Corso put it in typically direct fashion: "Poetry is when you are all alone in a little room and have to write the fucker down."

Cheap rent is essential because the moral imperative to pursue one's art is a first principle of an ethos at odds with the soul-deadening and time-consuming demands of gainful employment. George Sterling, a poet on the bohemian scenes in San Francisco and Carmel, California, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, maintained "[t]here are two elements, at least, that are essential to Bohemianism. The first is devotion or addiction to one or more of the Seven Arts; the other is poverty." (Walker, The Seacoast of Bohemia)

Bohemia offers a creative alternative to the fetishization of the market, and determination to live for art is a lovely ideal, but the Bohemian passport is not always carried entirely by choice. It was said of Bret Harte, a San Francisco bohemian of the 1860s, that he was a "somewhat pathetic figure...a gentleman of refined tastes with no means of support.... He was simply untrained for doing anything that needed doing." So he became a writer. (Tarnoff, The Bohemians)

The mode of existence of the poet, how to provide for food, shelter, and other necessities, has long been problematic, as has the poet's place and function in society. Ernst Robert Curtius addressed the topic in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, prefacing his discussion by noting that he is not speaking of "existence" in the contemporary sense of existentialism but has in mind "living conditions and making ends meet," the poet's "vocational problem."

Curtius cites a poet writing ca. 1100 who calls the whole enterprise into question:

Why should I continue to strive after wisdom and virtue? Fortuna favors only the bad. I have had enough of laboring at poetry.

How many poems have I written for prelates, and received empty words as my only reward! A buffoon is prized more highly than such as we. If anyone wants to be miserable, let him only study diligently and write poetry! Today art and learning are down in the market.

Today, too, art and learning are down in the market, the monopoly-money sums lavished on the few who write bestsellers or strike a deal for the film rights and those who carve out a less well remunerated niche for themselves in academia or writing-workshop gigs notwithstanding. In the Middle Ages as now poets felt keenly the tension between art and mammon. Curtius reports that there was no end to discussion as to whether a poet should write for money, beseeching a patron for assistance with what were called begging poems, and other such matters. Today perhaps those begging poems are known as grant proposals. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Whither Bohemia?

In 1916 the editors of the San Francisco review Bohemia lamented the passing of a bygone era:

In the old, inspirational days of San Francisco, the arts abounded in their manifold and colorful interpretations. But the thunder of mercenary pursuits has shattered that galaxy to atoms, and sent the angelic trumpeters of Memory shrieking to platonic shelter. Its lightning has struck the altar of the Muses, and the ambitious carol of worshipers has been choked to a death rattle. The barges of joyous throngs have forsaken shores once musical with revelry; the sirens of our nights have gone, and the pipes of Pan lie trodden under the hoofs of fleeting satyrs. (Ferlinghetti and Peters, Literary San Francisco)

The report of Bohemia's untimely demise was premature. New bohemias bloomed where women and men loosed from the moorings of conventional life were unhinged enough to devote themselves to one of the arts and accept that poverty might well be the fate that goes with it. There were lost generations and jazz ages, the Bloomsbury Group and other English bohemians of the 1920s and '30, beats, hipsters, flipsters, and finger poppin' daddies, and sixties folk, rock, and psychedelic bohemians that bring us within howling distance of the present day, when Bohemia is everywhere, made ubiquitous by internet, social media, and pop culture. Devalued by that ubiquity, Bohemia is nowhere. A Bohemia that is the norm, stripped of rebellion, is no longer Bohemia.

A bit of recollection

Atlanta's Little 5 Points was in the early days of emergence as a flourishing bohemian community when I took up residence there in the summer of 1977. The scenario is familiar. An urban district in decline became a haven for writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, political radicals, activists, and countercultural vagabonds in search of cheap rent and a way of life where art and the time-honored revolutionary ideals liberté, egalité, and fraternité counted for more than material possessions and illusions of security.

The Little 5 Points Pub was ground zero. People gathered to talk about writers, painters, books, and ideas, plot literary ventures and art shows, rant about politics and affairs of the day, take in live music, pursue romance and sex, the two sometimes going together, sometimes not, pop out to the parking lot in back to put on an illegal smile, and drink more than was strictly speaking advisable. I was much in thrall to Jack Kerouac, an enthusiasm that puzzles me today, but there you have it. My reading was then as now eclectic and somewhat undisciplined, all over the place, but drawn to continental European poets and novelists. Others came more out of Anglo-American traditions, some of them quite mainstream, not just the beats and Bukowski. Gerry Caltagerone was devoted to John Berryman and the legend of Delmore Schwartz. Steve B. was a Vietnam vet who took Hemingway as his model for a novel about the war.

Ah, one name calls up memory of others, and still some are bound to be left out. Poet, painter, actress Elaine Falone. Poet Ronnag Seaberg and husband Steve, artist, acrobat, writer. Sculptor, jewelry maker, storyteller Normando Ismay. Photographers Reid Jenkins and Scott Outman. Jim Brown (now painting as Jim Darlington), Jerry Pagane, and Steve Stoller made paintings that compelled me to take up the pen and set out in search of poem. Poet Debra Hiers marched to the tune of her own Dada flutist. Chuck Oliveros published two collections of poetry, The Pterodactyl in the Wilderness, (1982) and Bleeding from the Mouth (1992), wrote and performed a memorable series of dramatic monologues, Sex Machine, Fucking Dan Rather, and The Unabomber Is not My Brother, and continues to write novels too dark for the market (Buster Bungle's Big Top). In 1979 Del Hamilton and Faye Allen founded 7 Stages Theatre and Eddie Levi Lee launched Southern Theater Conspiracy. With the coming of the theaters, a critical mass was reached. The scene fairly exploded.

The affection with which I recount these memories is apparent. From my season in Little 5 Points came lasting friendships treasured to the present day. It was there that I began to find a voice as a poet, almost a decade after my first efforts at poem writing. For the first time I was among peers who thought of themselves as poets and painters just as I thought of myself as poet. They took me seriously. This was important for a young fellow whose nature it was to question himself and the worth of his efforts deeply and intensely.

With the affection comes another side, a profound sense of time wasted, missed opportunities, the usual poor choices and foolish moves. I was something of a misfit even among the misfits. After a few years I began to distance myself a bit from the scene, instinctively at first, without articulating it, as I came to realize that my place must be in that little room with pens, paper, typewriter, books, if I was to pursue the vocation of poet with any hope to make something of it. It was not a matter of breaking with people. Friendships continued while I found my way to the more solitary path the calling demanded. What might come of it remained — and remains — problematic.

A storehouse of figures and images

Bret Harte had it that "Bohemia has never been located geographically, but any clear day when the sun is going down, if you mount Telegraph Hill, you shall see its pleasant valleys and cloud-capped hills glittering in the West..." The idea of Bohemia endures apart from any physical manifestation in place and time. Figures and images from the demimonde wander through my poems like those wandering poets on whose shoulders I stand, as Doug Spangle recognized when he made reference to David Matthews and his portable bohemia. Bohemia endures as a storehouse of figures and images that represent a mode of existence and accompanying values taken up by poets of diverse cultures and eras. Not all poets adopted this manner of life or held the values we associate with Bohemia, but more than a few did. Among them are some of our finest.


Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Princeton University Press (1973; orig. pub. Germany 1947)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nancy J. Peters, Literary San Francisco, Harper & Row (1980)

Virginia Nicholson, Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900–1939, Harper & Row (2002)

Ben Tarnoff, The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Revinvented American Literature, The Penguin Press (2014)

Franklin Walker, The Seacoast of Bohemia, Peregrine Smith (1973)

Greg Whincup, The Heart of Chinese Poetry, Doubleday (1987)

Helen Wieruszowski, The Medieval University, D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc. (1966)

Poetry Foundation and Wikipedia entries for Henry Murger,Li Bai, and Du Fu

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