A Beat Poet’s Manifesto: Kupferberg’s “I am an Artist for Art’s Sake”

Tuli Kupferberg died on July 12, 2010.

If a Beat poet was one who rejected materialism and intended to live a life style that repudiated conventional middle class “proprieties” of the 1950 (as well, of course, as conventional poetics), Tuli Kupferberg was probably the only genuine Beat. In their dotage, while the famous Beats were installed in their monastery at the Naropa University in all their petit bourgeois splendor, Kupferberg was still living the same unpretentious way in the Lower East Side that he always did.

I once met Tuli in the early 70s. He invited a friend of mine to his apartment (on Avenue C if I recall right). In order to get in, you had to go around back and scream “Tuli!” He dropped the key from a window into the courtyard. You then unlocked the apartment building’s entrance and climbed the stairs to his apartment (there was no elevator). This procedure was necessary because the building (a broken down tenement) had no system to buzz in visitors. His own apartment was a mess — piles of papers, drug paraphernalia, and various refuse. And Tuli, disheveled, tall, skinny, with a very big head came bounding to the door like some large dog. Even completely high, he had child-like enthusiasm, and (probably because he was high) he was generous with his memorabilia. He gave us mimeographs of his poems, a 45 and copies of news clips. He had no great insight into Art, probably because he did not believe in it. The War was still raging, and that occupied everyone’s time and attention. The other wars he waged (about sex and drugs) had been won, and he spent less time agitating on those fronts.

There is really not much to say about Tuli; no revealing or ironical story. He lived his life as he proclaimed it. He was joyous and clever, but he decided to remain true to his underground roots. He made no effort at recording his history. It was hard enough for him to keep copies of his poems. The Fugs, the odd underground rock group he co-founded in 1965, probably would not have lasted if it were not for the professionalism of Ed Sanders. But it would not be remembered without Tuli. His Beat dirge “Nothing” is a classic Beat poem with its faux-Eastern point of view spewed out with 60s-style nihilistic venom:

Stevenson nothing
Humphrey nothing
Averell Harrimann nothing
John Stuart Mill nihil nihil
Franklin Delano Nothing

It also contains a swipe at the commercial avant garde poets and their adoring media:

O Village Voice nothing
New Yorker nothing
Sing Out! and Folkways nothing
Harry Smith and Allen Ginsberg
Nothing Nothing Nothing

Like the original Beat poetry it’s best heard rather than read. In their original recording The Fugs had harmonica and conga accompaniment.

The “respectable” literary establishment probably knows Kupferberg, if at all, only from an allusion in Ginsburg’s “Howl,” and the allusion is enough to hold Tuli blameless if he resented Ginsberg. He is one of the “best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” He’s the one

who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked
away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown
soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer …

Tuli played along with this myth, but never capitalized on it. In fact he was amazingly self-deprecating. He never made claims for his art or his thoughts. You can get a good insight of his personality by reading the interview Jason Gross did in 1997. For the “official obituary” you can read Ben Sisario’s surprisingly good and sympathetic piece in the New York Times.

As for the poem, what could be more fitting as a commemoration than one of his last works, an irreverent (and accurate) assessment of the state of art in our time?

I am an Artist for Art’s Sake

tune: “Eekh Bin Ah Boarder by Mine Vibe”
(I’m a Boarder at my Wife’s Place, c. 1910)

from Be Free: The Fugs’ Final CD (Part 2) (2010)

by Tuli Kupferberg

I am an artist for Art’s Sake
And it was God who gave my my Big Break
Told me: “You were meant for a higher purpose….
To sweep the Stables of Pegasus!”
I am an artist for Art’s Sake

Born with a Silver Ballroom in my mouth
A scion of the Olde Plantationist South
When other kids went out to work
What I did was pout, sketch, and shirk
I am an artist for Art’s Sake

I believe in Beauty and in Truth
Specially my beauty (and your Vermouth)
While other painters might join the Picket
I just cry: “Stick wicket!”
I am an artist for Art’s Sake

Hey! I’m also a Poet for Poetry’s sake
(Ya can bet I’m a poet oney for Poetry’s sake)
When other poets are in the street
I stay home and count my Feet
I am a Poet for Putz sake!

And I’m a Musician for The Muses sake
(other voice off) “You’re a musician for whosis sake?”
Well I do sit to a different drum
And my thumb up my bum makes a wonderful hum
I’m a musician for Amusements sake.

And I am a writer for Royalties sake
I know it is sales that make or break
And I don’t write for little presses
EAT or BE EATEN (I’m a BIG FRESSER!)
I am an artist for Publisher’s Sake

And I am a Journalist for the Owner’s sake
(It’s not exactly that I’m on the take)
But why write what The Editor don’t like….
When there’s 50 Cubs coming right down the pike?
I am a Reporter for the Advertiser’s sake.

Surely there are more important things
Than Africa or the price of beans….
I’ll explore my Inner Space
(And I can’t stand your Peasant face!)
I am an artist for Art’s Sake

Oh I do let the world pass me right by
(The Golden Section runs right thru my eye)
Let other people freeze and fight
Someone’s got to Paint it Right!
I am an artist for Art’s Sake

I am an Artist for Art’s sake
‘Twas God who gave me my big break
I was born for a Higher Reason
And all His Angels I am pleasin’
(spoken): I’m an Artist for God’s Sake!

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