The Female Beat Poet Who Wrote About Sex and Love

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Lenore Kandel c.1960

To mark World Poetry Day, we pay homage to Lenore Kandel, a rare feminist voice in the literary counterculture of the 1960s

For those who have read Jack Kerouac’s 1963 novel Big Sur, you may be familiar with a character named Romana Swartz, “a big Rumanian monster beauty”, as the author describes her. Romana Swartz, was, in fact, based on a real-life figure that Kerouac had met in San Francisco named Lenore Kandel. Whilst it is often stated that Kandel was “immortalised” by the Beat author, she is far more than a mere muse to the male-centric genre that dominated 1960s literary counterculture (a genre that still remains a favourite to namecheck among ‘lit-bros’ the world over).

Kandel was a poet and activist in her own right, one of the only women affiliated with the Beat movement, who wrote about the transcendental nature of love and sex. Her most notorious work, The Love Book, was a small pamphlet of poems, including To Fuck With Love, which contains such lines as: “I kiss your shoulder and it reeks of lust / the lust of erotic angels fucking the stars,” and, “I love you / your cock in my hand, stirs like a bird, in my fingers, as you swell and grow hard in my hand, forcing my fingers open, with your rigid strength, you are beautiful / you are beautiful, you are a hundred times beautiful.” To mark World Poetry Day, we pay homage to Kandel’s life and work – she is one of the most important, yet under-appreciated, feminist writers who ever lived. 

Seminal Moments 

Kandel was born in New York in 1932 to Russian and Mongol parents, with her interest in poetry apparent from a young age. After attending college in her home state, she moved to San Fransico in 1960, where she met Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Lew Welch, and began a romantic relationship with the latter. By the mid-60s, Kandel was living in the Haight-Ashbury, as one of the central figures in the hippie and Beat scene. In 1966, The Love Book was banned from being sold in the area’s Psychedelic Book Shop, on the grounds that it “excited lewd thoughts”. This instigated a lengthy court case, with the jury deciding the book was obscene and should be outlawed. Of course, such controversy only worked in Kandel’s favour, bringing her writing to the attention of a wider audience. 

Kandel went on to join the Haight-Ashbury’s community anarchist group the Diggers, who provided free food and medical care to the community. On the cusp of San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love, she took part in the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, as the only woman to read on stage. (It was her 35th birthday, and the entire crowd of 30,000 people sang her Happy Birthday.) The same year, Kandel published her first – and last – full book of poetry titled Word Alchemy. “Poetry is never compromise,” she penned in the introduction. “It is the manifestation/translation of a vision, an illumination, an experience...”

The writer went on to make a cameo appearance in the Kenneth Anger film Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), puffing on a joint held in a miniature skull. In 1976, she recited an impromptu poem at The Last Waltz concert, the subject of a documentary of the same name directed by Martin Scorsese. But tragically, just four years later, Kandel was involved in a motorcycle crash that rendered her barely able to walk after suffering massive trauma to her spine. Despite her physical setback, she continued to work and write until her death in 2009, from a short illness with lung cancer. 

Defining Features

“I met Lenore in 1965 at a citywide meeting of artists opposed to the war in Vietnam,” said actor Peter Coyote, founder of the Diggers, describing his friend Kandel. “Lenore was physically beautiful and physically commanding. She had this voluptuous plumpness about her and an absolute serenity. She was working as a belly dancer and would sew these beaded curtains to make money on the side. We would sit around and smoke dope and talk about philosophy and art. She was an enlightened person, a great being.”

In Big Sur, Dave Wain – Romana Swartz’ boyfriend, based on Kandel’s partner Lew Welch – describes her as walking around the Zen-East House, “wearing only purple panties”. She was “a big Rumanian monster beauty of some kind,” continues the protagonist Jack Duluoz. “I mean with big purple eyes and very tall and big (but Mae West big)... but also intelligent, well-read, writes poetry, is a Zen student, knows everything.”

She’s an AnOther Woman Because... 

As Haight-Ashbury historian Charles Perry notes: “Why Kandel’s book was singled out as obscene was the subject of much speculation. Certainly the poems were about sex, but in a rather romantic and high-minded way for all the four-letter words they contained. They read as if Elizabeth Barrett Browning had taken acid and set about to describe the sex act with relish as a cosmic event, identifying the lovers as the Divine Couple of Hindu mythology. It was virtually a celebration of monogamy, and there was far coarser eroticism available on newsstands and in bookstores all over San Francisco.” 

Such speculation is rather unnecessary, however. Evidently, such a furore stemmed from the fact that Kandel was a woman who had the audacity to write openly about sexual experience that she enjoyed as an active participant. What her male counterparts could get away with, for Kandel it became a matter of legality and the subject of moral outrage. “When a society becomes afraid of its poets, it is afraid of itself. A society afraid of itself stands as another definition of hell,” said Kandel, of her censorship battle. “A poem that is written and published becomes available to those who choose to read it.” An AnOther Woman through and through.