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The Hidden Master: George Dowden

Essay by Gerald Nicosia

The difficulty of my writing about George Dowden, or Kaviraj George Dowden, as he preferred to be called in the last decades of his life, is as if I were one of maybe 100 people who knew who Walt Whitman was, and I were suddenly called upon to let the world know the greatness of Whitman’s writing when most people were still at the stage of asking, “Walt who?”

George Dowden liked to imagine that he was a sort of direct literary and spiritual descendant of Whitman. He once even climbed into Whitman’s bed at the Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey, when the docent wasn’t looking! It is impossible to write about Dowden without getting at least a little bit into his craziness—but great geniuses are often crazy, and George was, for my money, an original literary genius of the highest order. But he was often taken as a poseur because of all the mannerisms and what sometimes seemed like affectations—the orange Hindu robes, the swami’s full beard, the Hindu pendants and charms worn around his neck, and so forth. If you visited his fifth-floor walk-up apartment on the strand in Brighton, a notoriously countercultural English seaside town, you would get an even bigger dose of these mannerisms. His orange cushion and his Kavirajini’s (wife’s) cushion were set side by side, and a visitor’s cushion set across from them, with carefully arranged stacks of manuscripts between them. If a visitor dared to try to sit somewhere other than his appointed place, he could encounter George’s fierce wrath; and I knew at least one Scots poet who, after getting chewed out by George for disobeying the house rules, got turned off to both George and his work, and ceased to be the champion of George’s poetry that he had previously been.

But think for a moment of Oscar Wilde, draped in cape, frock coat, feathered hat, green chrysanthemum and all sorts of effeminate jewelry. Hardly has any man, whether literary artist or flaming Hollywood drag queen, met the world with more affected armor than Wilde. Yet Wilde delivered the goods—he gave us great writings that will live forever, and so we forgive the affectations. And George too has left an enormous body of work, much of it of the highest caliber of writing. The only difference, again, is that Wilde’s work is fully accessible to the world—people read it, react to it, or (in the case of the plays) perform it every day—so the recognition of his genius grows ever wider. Much of George’s work was self-published, and the rest of it appeared from small literary presses or in little magazines. And George made no effort to springboard a career from that—as some writers have done. A little before the age of 40, George went to India, joined the ashram of the famed guru Muktananda, and had his kundalini awakened. From that point on, though George wrote ceaselessly and with great dedication till the time of his death at age 82 (in 2014), the whole thrust of his life was a retreat from fame, commercial success, or even professional recognition.

The result is that George left us 28 major books, an unknown number of small chapbooks, and many poems and other writings scattered throughout the literary journals; but the job of finding any of these works, if you don’t know where to look, can be as difficult as setting out to find your own goldmine.

It’s time to give a little human biographical background to this intentionally self-created, semi-mythical being, “the Kaviraj.” Born September 15, 1932, in Philadelphia, to parents of Irish and French-Canadian ancestry, George Dowden took his first hard blow from life when he was five years old. His father died from a failed gall bladder operation, and his destitute mother had trouble supporting him and his younger brother Donald. Just before George turned seven, she placed him in Girard College, the world’s largest orphanage for fatherless boys. It was supposedly also a military-style orphanage, and the imprint of George’s ten years there were on him all his life There was so much about him that was instantly comprehensible when one knew of his coming of age in that orphanage: his identity as a loner; his deep need for love, for human contact, and at the same time a profound distrust of anyone getting too close to him; his seeking joy inside himself, through reading, observation, meditation, all the things that a harsh, iron-fisted environment couldn’t take from him; his anger at authority and at anyone who frustrated his needs and longings; his deep-seated need to challenge authority; his tenderness toward those who were in any way hurt or oppressed; and, perhaps most of all, his love of nature and natural beauty, the whole world and universe that was beyond man’s petty control.

George got out of the orphanage as soon as he could. In 1950, at the age of 17, he joined the Navy and served for 3 years, traveling round the world and losing his virginity, he claimed, to a prostitute in Oran, North Africa. He also used those years to read mightily, an activity he would do all his life. When he got out of the Navy in 1953, he had read enough of Walt Whitman, William Blake, Charles Baudelaire, and Henry David Thoreau to know that he wanted to become a writer himself. Five-foot-nine, dark-haired, strongly-built, and handsome, he had a lot of the gifts it takes to become a success in life, but he was also still deeply angry, had trouble relating to most people, and found that no matter where he went he did not fit in well. But apparently someone advised him that to become a writer he should start by getting a degree in English. He used the GI Bill to pay for his way through Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania, 1953-57, majoring in English.

Little is known about Dowden’s four years at Bucknell. Like many writers and artists who create an iconic identity—from Jack Kerouac to Whitman himself—Dowden highlighted certain areas of his past, and kept other areas in darkness. We get glimpses in a few of his poems. In “Ah!” he refers to himself as a “college soccer star and boxer.” It makes sense considering the athletic build he had for much of his life. Again like Kerouac, he always reveled in his physical body as much as he did in his intellect. But as for career goal, considering the unlikelihood of earning a living as a writer, he figured he would have to become a college teacher; and following Bucknell, he applied to NYU to get his master’s degree.

But 1957, the year he got out of Bucknell, was a magical year for a healthy, good-looking, red-blooded young American male with an interest in the literary arts. The Beats had just burst upon the scene—Allen Ginsberg had just won his obscenity trial for Howl, and even more exciting, Jack Kerouac’s best-seller On the Road showed would-be writers like Dowden that there was another, entirely different, viable form of living and writing outside of academia. Dowden fell in love with the work of both of them, as he would later love almost every one of the Beats, including William Burroughs, as they appeared in print—Burroughs, especially, for the poetry of his language and courage to experiment. Dowden began teaching college literature classes to support his way through NYU, and he was probably the first professor in America to teach the Beat writers in a college classroom. That he did so completely without the knowledge or permission of the administrators at NYU shows that he was already far along in forging the role of rebel, outsider, and wild card that, a few years later and with the help of his Indian guru Muktananda, he would spiritualize into the persona of the “Kaviraj.”

We have only brief glimpses of Dowden in his late twenties. By all accounts, he was a voracious reader, and had added writers like Robert Burns, Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Louis-Ferdinand Celine to the large stock of authors he loved, and from which he could often quote by heart. No surprise, then, that he sought to supplement his income as a part-time teacher with work as an editor at McGraw-Hill in New York City. It was there, in mid 1959, that we get our next glimpse of him, because he proposed marriage to a young woman editor named Nancy Angela Trifari.

The very innocent graduate of a Catholic girls’ college, Nancy continually refused his invitations to start dating; but it wasn’t because he looked or acted like a beatnik. Far from it, he dressed well and always approached her in a respectful, courteous manner—so much so, that she finally agreed to take lunchtime walks with him discussing literature and philosophy. He told her of his painful upbringing in the orphanage, and of his deepest desires, especially his greatest hope: to become an iconic American poet like Whitman. Because she seemed skeptical about his goal to become a great poet, he wrote her a poem for her 22nd birthday on July 20th, 1959, and read the poem aloud to her standing next to her desk. Aimed directly at her in his deep, resonant voice, the poem bowled her over, and she knew then that he was a poet. But she had a teaching job in New Jersey awaiting her in late August, and she quit her McGraw-Hill job to go to it. They wrote to each other frequently and continued to arrange to see each other.

But George did have a different life than that of the courtly, well-groomed young editor. By night he roamed the Village, drinking, sometimes smoking pot, and seeking out the company of Beat artists and writers, with whom he felt most at home. He did not share much of this with Nancy, but she may have intuited it; because when he proposed marriage to her in September, she turned him down. She told him that they clearly had very different paths to follow in life, and that she was not suited to follow the path he would have to take to become a Whitman-like or Beat poet. But she recalls that it was a difficult moment for both of them, because, in her words, “the bond between us was profound.

The early ’60’s were a hard and lonely time for George. His poetry was developing by leaps and bounds, as he pursued many new avenues of writing. From the Beats he had learned a documentary style, coming from their personal, confessional narratives—but George added something new to it, a concern with the way history affected his own consciousness. These were times fraught with exciting and often-traumatic events, from the Civil Rights marches to the Kennedy assassination to the beginnings of the Vietnam War; and George began experimenting with melding the political events in the outside world with his own personal life and thoughts. In a way, this was revolutionary stuff, but I have no idea how many other writers, if any, even knew he was doing it. He spoke to me about coming under the influence of the young ethno-poet Jerome Rothenberg, and of how for a year or so his own poetry began to reflect Rothenberg’s call for “deep image.” But whether he ever met Rothenberg I do not know. What is clear, is that George was rapidly become sick of being an underpaid adjunct professor at NYU. He was tired of living hand-to-mouth, he later wrote, riding hot subways to work every day trying “to push a little Naked Lunch down young Jewish English Major throats clogged” with the likes of Saul Bellow.

He was now doing most of his teaching at Brooklyn College, but they hinted that he would soon be let go unless he entered a Ph.D. program. He could not afford to get one in the U.S., and so he entered an affordable Ph.D. program at the University of Sussex in England, near Brighton, the town that would eventually become his favored spot on earth. It was there his true literary and psychic journey began, but not in classes. He discovered and was overwhelmed by the consciousness-expanding power of LSD. Putting aside his planned doctoral thesis on the Beats, he spent a year doing his own controlled experiments on LSD. In 1965, at the age of 33, he also married a 21-year-old English artist named Pauline, who was still very much under the sway of her traditional British parents. The marriage, needless to say, did not go well; and George recorded that there were also moments when he became physically violent with her, terrifying her.

George and Pauline lived together only a year, in a poor district of London that was filled with immigrants, with her parents apparently hounding him to get a regular job. When they split up, he returned to New York to resume his teaching at NYU and Brooklyn College—but they did not actually divorce until 1971. During the 60’s, he seems to have traveled back and forth between the U.S. and England more than once. These were productive years for him as a poet. Between 1965 and 1971, he published nine books of poems! In those days, he identified strongly as a Beat poet—he taught Howl, On the Road, The Subterraneans, and Naked Lunch—and would often hang out at Ed Sanders’ notorious Peace Eye Bookshop.

It was actually at the Peace Eye Bookshop in the summer of 1966 that Sanders introduced Dowden to Ginsberg. Allen was already so famous, and publishing his poems in so many small magazines, that Lawrence Ferlinghetti wanted to commission a bibliography of his works. Sanders convinced Ginsberg to let Dowden do the bibliography, thinking that because Dowden was an “academic” he would know what he was doing. In fact, Dowden had never done a bibliography before, and incorrectly began assembling it in alphabetical rather than the proper chronological order—something that was not discovered till it was too late to correct.

But one of the great results of the bibliography project for Dowden was that he and Ginsberg spent ten years corresponding, and Ginsberg sent him boxes of materials, including a copy of almost every work he had ever published. Dowden recalls that a growing friction developed between him and Ferlinghetti as the project progressed, but George and Allen soon became good friends. During the ‘60’s, Allen visited George in both his Brighton and London pads; and in 1973, after George returned from India, Allen invited George to spend a day with him at Barry Miles’ house in London, where Allen was staying. That afternoon, when Ginsberg played his harmonium and sang various kinds of songs—blues, Blake chants, and so forth—for George was one of the highlights of George’s life. He taped Allen, and would play those tapes for years afterward. George recalled that they all got high smoking the ganja George had brought back from India; then they drove over to Burroughs’ pad to share the ganja with the “courtly and appreciative” old junkie. Finally, when they were all completely mellow, with George still running his tape recorder, their rap session evolved into a hilarious routine of Bill playing the “Master” to Allen’s “Apprentice.”

On yet another day, Allen, Peter Orlovsky, and George made a day trip by car to Felpham to visit Blake’s house, and according to George they all had a great time together. But despite these occasional good times, these were not happy years for him. He was lonely, troubled, and often angry. He would sometimes spend hours by himself at the movies, “making a little party” with a half pint of whisky. He had a love-hate relationship with his mother—the woman who had abandoned him to an orphanage when he was still a little boy—that a psychoanalyst in New York diagnosed as a classical Oedipal complex, from which George felt himself unable to break free. He felt that that Oedipal complex overshadowed all of his attempted relationships with women; on top of which, he was scared to death of the idea of having children, of having to assume the role of father, which he felt would absolutely end his career as a poet.

George quit psychoanalysis, he told me, when he realized that most of his problems were spiritual, not psychological. It was 1970, and George met his first “guru” in the person of “an enormous New York Jew who ran an Oriental arts business,” name of Rudi. Rudi told George about the guru Muktananda in India, and suggested that George go to live in Muktananda’s ashram in Ganeshpuri (near Bombay) for a year. At just about the same time, the University of Texas offered George $4,000 for his Ginsberg collection. City Lights was finally about to publish his bibliography of Ginsberg (it would appear the following year, 1971), with Ferlinghetti hurling curses at him for having botched the job (although Ginsberg praised the work and dubbed him “Sir Scholar George”). With the loot from Texas, George left all his troubles in America behind and made his way to Muktananda’s ashram.

What happened there, in mid December1971, transformed Dowden’s life forever.

Muktananda was the founder of Siddha yoga. The goal of most yogas is to raise the kundalini, a primal energy that is supposed to be coiled at the base of the spine. But most yogas claim that it takes years of stringent practice to raise the kundalini. Muktananda, by contrast, specialized in shaktipat, which was virtually an instantaneous transmission of spiritual energy that could be triggered by just a few words, or even the physical touch of Muktananda upon a disciple. On George’s seventh day at the ashram, during a routine meditation presided over by Muktananda, he underwent the most powerful spiritual experience of his life. As he described it years later: “Suddenly, without warning, something grips my whole body in its wings and flies meticulously upward from the base of my spine, an immense atomic-like force straight up the centre of my back into my head! It’s stronger than the Acid waves of the first few hours’ rush of any LSD I’ve ever had, and different!”

George stayed on at the ashram nine more months, and he talked with Muktananda about the experience. Muktananda told him that one did not necessarily do anything with a kundalini awakening—it was not as if one suddenly went out to save the world with it. Muktananda said that it was more about being fully oneself and being fully conscious of every moment in one’s life. Since he knew George was a poet, Muktananda advised him to continue writing. Before George left the ashram, Muktananda gave him the title of “Kaviraj”: “great poet seer.”

It was not as if the kundalini awakening made George a poet. His many books prove that Dowden was already an accomplished poet before he went to India. But his poetry changed profoundly as a result of what happened at the ashram. George once described his previous poetry as “malefic”—meaning that it stressed the awfulness of life, of politics, and of the universal hurt that is given and received so prolifically on this earth. He actually dedicated one of his early books to “John Fitzgerald Kennedy Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby who joined, and united us all, in a few moments’ consciousness of the one true brotherhood of death in America.” The poetry after his awakening had many new characteristics, including a precision of language it had lacked before and an almost supernatural consciousness of every detail both in his mind and in the world his mind encountered. But above all, his post-awakening poetry was positive—no longer cursing the world and his life, but praising it, celebrating the joy and beauty and wonder of being alive and conscious.

George returned to Brighton, returned to acid for another year of consciousness-altering experiments, and began a daily writing regimen—often in small notebooks he carried about like Kerouac—that continued till the end of his life. A profusion of new books followed. Almost effortlessly, George developed a new form to accommodate his expanded and hyper-attentive consciousness: the “poem-prose poem.” Building on the work of Whitman’s natural speech, Williams’ variable foot, and Ginsberg’s long-breath line, Dowden came up with a natural flow of paragraphs, each one a kind of “mind-breath” of completed perception; and it was the accumulation of these carefully-crafted building blocks of perception that made the poem. The form had its own problems and limitations—chief among them, the confusion of many people as to whether they were reading prose or poetry. Eventually George dropped the cumbersome designation and just returned to calling his pieces “poems”—to let readers know that this was how they should approach his works.

Miracle followed miracle. Chief after the lifting of his poetry to a cosmic level was the return of his great love Nancy Trifari (now Roncati) to his life. Despite having a conventionally happy marriage to a lawyer in a New Jersey suburb, with three children she loved very much, Nancy still had an empty space in her life, which had a lot to do with the love George Dowden had inspired in her, and the particular beauty he had seen in her, and written of, which no one else had ever uncovered. Over the years she had sought to discover whether George had succeeded in his career as poet. In 1981, in a library reference book, she was gratified to learn that he had published fourteen books. She wondered if the poem he’d written for her 22nd birthday was in one of those books, and later that year she summoned the courage to write to City Lights to ask if they could help her locate the poem George had written so many years before.

City Lights co-owner Nancy Peters could not locate the poem, but she did something even better; she forwarded Nancy Roncati’s letter to Dowden in England. Nancy’s letter could not have come at a better time for George. Unable to afford living in England any longer, he was about to return to live at his elderly mother’s house in a suburb of Philadelphia—a move that would prove so disastrous it would almost drive him completely mad (and which he would write of in one of his most powerful poems, “Time of the Crucible”). He was saved from ending his life in an institution by a psychiatrist’s timely prescription of Mellaril, but also, surely, by the fact that Nancy re-entered his life with a deep, healing love and concern for his well-being.

George and Nancy corresponded for 15 months, taking their love to levels of mind and spirit it had never reached before. On September 22, 1982, on the grass in front of Lyndhurst Castle in Tarrytown, New York, George declared her his “spiritual bride.” Forty-five years old and still married and in the midst of raising a family, Nancy was in no position to become his actual bride. George would soon return to England, to live again in Brighton; but before he did, they contrived to have a sexual interlude, to include their bodies in this new union, by his joining her in her camper near New York City. George, who had spent his life searching for unconditional love, had finally found it, and he was projected into an ecstasy he had never imagined possible. The following year, Nancy helped him purchase a 5-floor walk-up condominium overlooking the sea on Brighton’s most famous street, Marine Parade, which he proudly called “the Cave,” though it was wonderfully sunny and bright; and George now had both a wife and a permanent home. Though much of their relationship for the next 31 years, until he died in 2014, would be by telephone or letter, Nancy inspired book after book of poems, as well as a novel about their relationship, Songbirds Nestle in Her Hair—to the point where I once wrote that Dowden was “unquestionably the most important love poet of our era.” She also unleashed a torrent of creativity in both poetry and prose, resulting in another dozen books—among them both a wild autobiographical novel, The Moving I, reminiscent of Celine, and several of his greatest books of poetry, including The Deepening, Being Somewhere Saying Something, and The Eternities of Shiva.

George spent decades roaming the waterfront of Brighton, often in orange Hindu lungi (man’s skirt) and a red Kaviraj T-shirt specially made for him by the wife he called “Annie,” with his long natural grey beard and Shiva pendants, and notebook and pen in hand—and was called everything from “Father Christmas” to “Galileo” and “Karl Marx” by the locals. The theme of “his consciousness meeting the consciousness of the world” became central to all his writings. A couple of times a year “Annie” would leave her family obligations and come across the water to spend a week or two with him. In 1995, at last free of her American marriage, Nancy and George took formal marriage vows, though the nature of their marriage, more in spirit than in flesh, did not change.

Life for George was far from paradisaical, however. From the time he first reunited with Nancy at age 50, he was plagued with health problems that grew steadily worse until he died. He had cut down his drinking to a few lagers a week, but he was a lifelong smoker, and eventually suffered from COPD. He had arthritis so severe that he needed strong pain pills just to get around and do his daily work. He had never been careful about his eating, either, and ended up with arteries so badly clogged that in 1997 he was forced to have quadruple bypass surgery. The artery disease led to the amputation of his left leg in 2009. He also, eventually, developed prostate cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, and, in the last 2 or 3 years of his life, Lewy Body Dementia, which affected both his thought processes and his personality—to a point where Nancy sometimes had trouble recognizing him. Though I visited him twice, in 2003 and 2010, in his last years he asked me not to come to see him, because he did not want me to witness what his life had descended to, being cared for round the clock by attendants who had to help him in and out of bed and to take care of his most basic needs. Yet he continued to write till the very end, working on a poem called “Ward Log,” which he had begun at the Newhaven Rehabilitation Centre shortly after the amputation of his leg. It was going to be his great cosmic epic of human life and death—but he never lived to finish it.

In those last years, George developed a very small circle of younger writers and poets who recognized his greatness and tried to help his work get known—chief among them myself, a Missouri poet named Dan Crocker, and the British writer Dave Cunliffe. But by and large Dowden turned his back on the idea of mainstream recognition. It frustrated those of us who cared about him, because we knew that in all the ways that really matter, he really was a great poet. A great poet has a unique voice—you read a few lines of him/her, and you recognize that poet at once. Think of John Keats or Dylan Thomas—could their lines come from anyone else? There is no question George developed such a poetic voice. He also developed what every great poet must have—a unique vision of the world. In George’s case, it was the viewpoint of the “comic yogi.” Unable to follow the strict discipline of traditional yoga, George continued on with his cigarettes, his lagers, and his appreciation for young women’s round bottoms, but he did so in a way that his own weaknesses simply made his consciousness grow larger and more compassionate toward the rest of the world. Finally, George had that gift that only the greatest poets possess: which is to make the reader live in their world, follow them in their every footstep, and feel each of their words and thoughts is the reader’s very own.

In the last years of his life, George worked sporadically on a primer that he felt would help guide young poets. It was never published, but the advice it gives is priceless. Though clearly many would disagree with him—such as the Language Poets and Deconstructionists, both of whom George loathed—George declared that there can be no great modern poetry that is not in the “threefold Whitman Tradition.” To begin with, he said, that tradition dictates that modern poetry must be in free verse and must be personal. But in George’s view, Whitman also laid down a third law for modern poets that can be ignored only at the peril of trivializing even the finest writing. Like Song of Myself, modern poetry must also manifest “down-to-earth vision or mysticism,” a cosmic view of everyday reality—what has sometimes been imprecisely called“cosmic consciousness.”

What George referred to, he made clear, was a way of speaking so directly to the heart of humanity that not just college professors but even ordinary workingmen are struck by the truth of the great poet’s words, which resonate like a bell in the very core of their being. Dante had this “down-to-earth vision,” Dowden said, and so did William Blake. So did Henry Miller. So did Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

And so did the poet Kaviraj George Dowden.

Gerald Nicosia is an author, poet, journalist, interviewer, and literary critic. He wrote what many consider to be the finest biography of Jack Kerouac, Memory Babe. He is Jan Kerouac’s literary executor and has edited Jan Kerouac: A Life in Memory.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #23