Poetry News

Electric Literature Investigates Beat Generation Poet Elise Cowen

By Harriet Staff
Elise Cowen

At Electric Literature, join Bat City Review Managing Editor Katelin Kelly and look into the history of Beat Generation poet, Elise Cowen. Cowen, a close colleague of Allen Ginsberg, shared an apartment with Peter Orlovsky for some time. Her works, which drew inspiration from Emily Dickinson, mirror the fragmented nature of Dickinson's ouevre as Cowen's parents destroyed all but one of her notebooks due to its "homosexual and drug-related content" leaving scholars with similar fragments. In her essay, Kelly writes: "Born in 1933 in Washington Heights, New York, Cowen was briefly lovers with Allen Ginsberg, and her own poetry is often overshadowed by her associations with Ginsberg both sexually and creatively — she is most well known as the typist of his poem 'Kaddish.' Cowen’s work is usually classified as cult rather than canonical, and her name is easily traceable through niche internet articles such as 'The Best Female Poet You’ve Never Heard Of' or 'The Lady is a Humble Thing' from Beatdom, a website 'dedicated to the study of the Beat Generation.'" Let's start there: 

My journey with Cowen begins in an archive where she is misnamed from the very beginning. I began my hunt with Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s longtime partner and former roommate of Cowen. Searching Orlovsky’s correspondences in the Harry Ransom Center’s Ginsberg Collection, I misspelled Cowen’s name in the search engine, which yielded a single result: [...]

What are the odds that there was also an Elsie Cowan corresponding with Peter Orlovsky? Orlovsky’s life was interesting, but not interesting enough to have an Elsie Cowan and Elise Cowen within the same sphere.

I found the letter and saw that it was typed on Columbia University stationary, another clear indicator that yes, this is Elise. And her signature: a subtle dot in between the i and s, which in cursive could translate to “Elsie” to an archivist, particularly one who didn’t even known Elise existed.

More tantalizing still was an article in the Ginsberg archive entitled “Elise Cowen: A Brief Memoir of the Fifties” written by Leo Skir in August 1967, five years after her death. Skir, at least, was saying her name and spelling it correctly. His writing, however, leaves much of Elise’s life out of the picture. Instead, Skir focuses on the moment in which she entered and exited his life, rather than offering a full or complex portrait of hers.

Read on at Electric Literature.

Originally Published: August 18th, 2017