Ron Whitehead is a poet with a mission. There aren’t enough of those around.
He’s been described by Allen Ginsberg as an “energetic Bodhisattvic poetic spirit,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti as “un brave type!,” by Douglas Brinkley as “one of the remarkable poets of his generation” (Ron was born in 1950), by Hunter Thompson as “crazy as ten loons.”
No doubt about it, Whitehead is a charged and driven charismatic person. His aura of positivity and his Never Give Up attitude — which the Dalai Lama supernaturally sensed when he imparted the poem of that title Whitehead transcribed and made verse — are not just perceived but are felt as an irresistible force.
He’s a humanist tapped into the Ground Source, a man with a conscience and indomitable spirit, a voice from beyond in the here and now, learning as well as teaching as he travels his path, using poetry as his chosen vehicle. It could have been music, it could have been visual art, but those medium’s didn’t & don’t suit his purpose, which is to rouse as many people as possible — especially Americans — out of the big sleep.
Though much of Whitehead’s early poetry was designed to tell you about himself as a way of letting you know it’s alright to be yourself, he has, since about 1992, decided to become more than an individual beacon of light putting words into books that ultimately languish on library shelves. He’s decided to become a visible, helpful, loud-and-clear instigator who is at once actively inspiring and at the same time recruiting already-awake enlightened souls to action against repressive forces of darkness that seek to put the proverbial Orwellian boot on a person’s back when that person is down. That person is only down because he or she allows himself or herself to be down and devoid of hope, devoid of The Self. And that person represents the collective person, represents all of us in this world.
Whitehead’s call to arms sounds at first revolutionary, but it is essentially basic, heartfelt and intelligent: It’s about not conforming to the nationalistic, racist, sexist, evil consumer-producer culture that international governments of the 19 th and 20 th centuries have sent down to us as our legacy and our collective fate.
The only way to fight those in control, at any given time, is to remain an open, caring and aware individual with a humanist conscience. That’s more than just a personal belief — which becomes poetry —on Whitehead’s part; it is the only effective resistance against what used to be called “the tide of conformity.” What Whitehead does in not rabble-rousing; it is the same thing Emerson stood up for, Walt Whitman stood up for, the same thing Gandhi stood up for — and one telling fact about post-modern world-civilization is clearly seen in the way these people automatically become lightning rods.
Whitehead has come under fire for being anti-American over his ‘I Will Not Bow Down’ (Hozomeen Press, 1996) and ‘Declaration of Independence This Time’ (Hozomeen Press, 2001), two savvy works that are as American as apple pie before the apples & grains were mixed with toxic ingredients and baked into a force-fed pastry of imperialist fascism and closed-mindedness by self-serving smug moronic politicians and Puritanical charlatan embeciles rich enough to advertise themselves as guardians of an inherently detrimental, even deadly, status quo.
Whitehead’s agenda is not entirely individualistic, not in the negative sense anyway. He has shaped his persona in such a way as to make of himself an example, James Joyce’s “universal in the particular,” and the ramifications cause his stance to become political in contemporary society and partly due to the way contemporary governments operate.
Whitehead is decidedly and consciously an Emersonian Kentuckian, a Walt Whitman with a political agenda, philosophizing and yet merely describing the current circumstances, but also offering indispensable pragmatic advice rooted in his own experience of surviving these years since Ronald Reagan and his cronies effectively killed the so-called counter culture of the 1960s.
What Reagan and company didn’t count on was that there were true believers among those now derisively called “baby boomers.”
Yes, Whitehead was over there in Washington D.C. turning over trash cans on the street in protest of the Vietnam Conflict, dodging tear gas canisters, at the behest of the likes of Jerry Rubin. But Whitehead (and others of his generation) realized that social revolution had already been won by 1973. The Republicans also realized they’d lost that battle for the American conscience by then, and many on both sides of the cultural revolution thought the war was over during the 1970s. The sheep retired, at that time, to New York and Paris discos, with their vials of cocaine, ridiculous clothes, and other leftover surface trappings of “the second revolution.” Whitehead himself had found his soul-mate, Nancye, and retired (ca. 1974-78) to his native Beaver Dam, Kentucky, to sell Nissans for an Owensboro dealership and raise a family.
But the post-Nixon governmental backlash was still in the works, and when it hit full-force with Reagan leading the charge, Whitehead was one who decided not to sit around and be discredited for having been a part of the 1960s. He was too much a man to deny that part of himself and retreat to a cloister, a la his much-admired Thomas Merton, and, anyway, Whithead had snake-handling holy-rollers in his ancestry. Total defeat is inadmissible to him; self-emasculation is not in his nature.
His option, he felt, was academia, and he enrolled at the University of Louisville around 1980, finding a mentor in Dr. Donald Slavin. Slavin encouraged him not only to consider teaching as a profession, but also to write, something Whitehead had had in the back of his own mind since childhood but had, like many writers, only trifled with and not considered seriously as a profession. He was instantaneously sparked by his studies and Slavin’s suggestion, and ended up taking over editorship of Thinker Review, the university’s student publication. Using his car-salesman skills, he talked U of L out of a previously unheard-of $15,000 budget, and he modeled the resulting publication on The Chicago Review and Triquarterly. The book was a resounding success, and his tenure as editor was extended. For the second Thinker Review, he contacted a multitude of nationals and internationals, and scored a huge coup: he got Seamus Heaney to contribute a pre-Nobel Prize poem, along with contributions from Diane di Prima, Lucien Stryk and Eithne Strong. He also made a contact with Allen Ginsberg, and ended up bringing Ginsberg to Louisville for a reading.
Ginsberg proved ultimately to be a lifelong ally and friend. And it was not a matter of Whitehead riding on the famous author’s coat tails.
Ginsberg had, by 1979, been reduced to getting himself featured in People magazine sitting on railroad tracks blocking trains from delivering nuclear wastes here and there.
Once the Whitehead-Ginsberg contact was made, it morphed into a friendly symbiotic relationship. Ginsberg lent his name and his then-shrinking credibility to Whitehead’s efforts at organizing readings and his inroads into publishing. Ginsberg also turned Whitehead on to his insider list of contacts. Whitehead jumped waist-deep into the reviving of Ginsberg’s lagging career as a poet, though at the time it seemed a daunting task for a complete unknown like himself, but he did manage to inspire Ginsberg to start howling at pulpits and lecturns again instead of spending so much of his time on photography and on getting himself arrested for belated ineffectual protests and playing the victim.
Whitehead’s causes and plans of action were unformulated at the time, but he was soon finding his feet, after much soul-searching and a lot of knocking on doors he had been pointed to by Ginsberg.
Whitehead’s personal ideology, rooted in much-maligned teachings of Ram Dass, in literary treatises found in novels such as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, in Edvard Munch’s profoundly expressionist paintings and prints, in music from Bill Monroe to the Grateful Dead and Sonic Youth, soon became fully integrated with a crystal-clear understanding of what Abbie Hoffman had tried to accomplish; with an intimation of what past sages (from prophets to our own Thomas Jefferson) had been up against; with what documents such as the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights stand for in real time as applicable declarations and not just as a hopeful but to-be-disregarded ideals.
Everything Whitehead had ever learned or had intuitively known fell into place by the mid-1990s. He was inevitably moved to take action — not only to write books, but also to tie himself to a socially submerged upheaval that he was surprised to find was happening all over the United States and Europe. He has emerged, subsequently, as a leader in that underground, though it is not his intention to be a leader. His intention is only to instigate awakening among those who wish to awaken, to kick in the ass or tweak the cheeks of those who would have others sleepwalk through lifetimes:
These words are partly appropriated from William Butler Yeats, doctored of course, and Whitehead “dedicates” his co-opted rendering to “The Fathers Who Art Round(Heads)” — by name: Rush Limbaugh, George Bush, Pat Robertson, Kenneth Starr.
That such a writing would be considered dangerous or threatening, and could potentially draw down the wrath of American elected officials, speaks for itself and shows us how drastically and dramatically America, in particular and as an entity, has been circumvented and perverted. Whitehead is keenly aware that basic American freedoms are disappearing rapidly as we enter the 21st century.
One of Whitehead’s quests involves an articulation of ‘The Ocean of Consciousness’, in order to tap mankind into “the qualitative growth” that will make us truly civilized.
‘Blood Filled Vessels Racing To The Heart’ (Hozomeen Press, 1997) was an attempt to explain the Ocean of Consciousness in apolitical terms. Unfortunately, it fails as a manifesto because it speaks academically instead of pragmatically. There is much finger-pointing toward as-yet unrealized historical ideas of merit, and the implication that these ideas can be realized partially redeems the text.
‘The Beaver Dam Rocking Chair Marathon’ (unfinished as of this February 2002 writing, except for volume one, issued by Tilt-A-Whirl Press, 1998) goes further toward articulating this Ocean of Consciousness, to which we all belong but are taught by social institutions and governments to deny in order to perpetuate feelings of hopelessness and alienation that keep a galvanized and earth-shaking irrevocable spiritual and political revolution from occurring.
Whitehead finds himself, in 2002, as a link between the Beats, Scandinavian expressionists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European poets in the tradition of Yeats to Heaney, modernist writers such as James Joyce and Ezra Pound, and so-called Generation Xers and now Generation Post-Xers, whom he has been professor to during the 1980s and 1990s and is still teaching in the first decade of century 21. Along the way, he’s linked arms with other inter-generational luminaries (and I use the term “luminaries” not in the sense of celebrity, but instead in its literal sense) such as Casey Cyr and Bob Holman.
“Many times I’ve thought I needed to move to New York or San Francisco to make myself heard,” Whitehead said to me once, “but Ferlinghetti told me there was no need for that, that I was already making myself heard based right here in Louisville [Kentucky]. And I have a love-hate relationship with Kentucky, but it was no different when I lived in Rekjavik [Iceland] for two years. I still had to travel to Netherlands and read in Amsterdam, still had to travel to Wisconsin and New York and New Orleans to read. So no matter where I live, I’d still have to travel, just like the Rolling Stones have to travel, which I don’t mind at all. I’m a restless spirit anyway.”
The books are out there. They’re on the shelves at City Lights, on the shelves in Chicago, on the shelves in Portugal and India. So are the books of others he’s published since founding the Kentucky-based Literary Renaissance in 1992.
Literary Renaissance has imported writers, artists and musicians to Kentucky, and has exported Midwestern Americans to points all over the globe. The idea is to pinpoint individuals and groups with something to transmit and help them make themselves heard — on a stage, in bars and cafes, in auditoriums at universities, on the radio, through CD releases as well as books. He finds the avenues, and he speaks and he brings others along with him to speak and play music and otherwise communicate worthy ideas or statements.
A subsidiary of Literary Renaissance is Published In Heaven, an outfit that has published and continues to publish a series of chapbooks as well as poems and visuals on posters and including material by everyone from Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter to Yoko Ono to former American president Jimmy Carter.
Whitehead has also been a tireless organizer of reading and music events since the 1980s. His “insomniacathons,” which sometimes go for three or four days nonstop, are now legendary.
These events and CDs take the word off the page and make them real, while leaving the pages and CDs for history, in case history’s interested.
Lots of writers don’t know how to get out of their own vacuums. They’re not fit for society or society rejects them for one reason or another. Society puts them in this quandary and the result is a standoff: They want to deal with everything second-hand, through their writings. They can’t or don’t know how to deal with the reality of what’s happening. Again, this is something the so-called Status Quo requires of all citizens, all who would fit into the “normal scheme of things.”
Whitehead doesn’t fit into that normal scheme of things, and he’s not willing to retreat and forget it, because he knows that “normalcy,” as it is generally conceived of, is a political and social ploy that keeps individuals from being shining examples of humanity in the Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu or even Agnostic reality.
He writes his blasts against dangerous political idiocy, he writes his contagious love poems, he co-opts what makes sense to him and passes it on in the same way those before him have, like shamans, passed on what is valuable — then he bothers to hit the road and read it to people, face to face, to meet his audience and other poets on similar quests, instead of just tapping it into a computer file and letting a newspaper or book publisher send out sanitized reviews which either fall upon deaf ears or circumvent the real message. He interacts with people, is a citizen diplomat, finds some who are in common cause with him, ends up arguing wrestling with others who aren’t.
But he’s unstoppable now that he knows what his mission is: