Winter 2006-7

ESSAYS - George Wallace

A MASK OF VIOLETS: On the poetry of Pete Winslow

                   "I see him in my future. He has selected my worst poems, from the years when I was most harried and
short of poetic breath, and is using them as a pretext for some bland aesthetic doctrine. Well that's all right...let him...I'm more careful now...I leave time bombs around disguised as poems - even the connoisseur of duds gets his eyes opened once in a while."   
                                                 Pete Winslow, forward to "A Daisy In The Memory Of A Shark"


At the risk of being cast as 'connoisseur of duds,' if it ever does come out, here's hoping that it includes one of the great and cheerful West Coast surrealist poets of his day, Pete Winslow.


Never heard of him?
If the name Pete Winslow sounds out of the mix to you, it's because, like many of the talented writers whose works were current during the 50s and 60s, despite being published by no less an outfit than City Lights, his poetry has become nearly lost.
And that's a shame. There are at least a half dozen poems in the man's City Lights collection alone which I would consider to be musts' to include in any Lost Beats anthology.

How I shook out copies of the poetry of Pete Winslow is just one of those things for me in recent months. I've gotten this urge to look for people like him and take a closer look at their work -- people like John Hoffman, whose poetry Philip LaMantia at the Six Gallery event; No!Art poet Stanley Fisher's another.
As you might expect, it started when I found a couple of his poems online and references to a City Lights collection, long out of print, and other small chapbooks that seemed impossible to come by.

As part of that process, I ran across a press release that piqued my interest, in which an archive of poetry materials had been donated to the San Francisco Library by Winslow's widow. I managed to reach her by phone in San Francisco, and had a nice chat with her about her husband's life and poetry.


First, the facts, as reported by the Seattle Post-InIntelligencer in his Sept 18, 1972 obit.
       "Dean H. (Pete) Winslow Jr., North Beach poet who was a former Seattle newspaperman, died here yesterday at Kaiser Hospital of complications following surgery. He was 38, born October 19, 1934. A graduate of the University of Washington, Winslow worked for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before coming to this area where he became a poet and worked for the Livermore Calif. Independent...He has published several volumes of poetry and at the time of his death was working on a volume of essays. Winslow wrote the novel "Mount Gogo and several books of poetry including "The Rapist and Other Poems," "Monster Cookies," "Mummy Tapes," and "Whatever Happened to Pete Winslow." In 1967 he received a $1,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Following his death, his last volume of poems, Daisy in the Memory of a Shark, was published by City Lights Books as no. 31 in the Pocket Poets Series."

According to Jane Winslow (she's a volunteer with San Francisco Beautiful these days), she met Pete in 1962, a couple of years after he came to the Bay Area in an attempt to catch a wave with the literary community there. "Pete was a fan of Kenneth Rexroth said Jane. The time of the Beats "was coming to an end," she said, but he got involved, reading in coffee houses and otherwise becoming part of the scene.

Winslow's involvement in the scene had certain distinctions from those of others around him, says Jane. As a journalist, he had a facility for authorship, and was a capable writer. Then too, Winslow had a fascination with surrealism early on, which propelled him quite naturally in the direction of Philip LaMantia. The pair had a considerable correspondence, and spent a lot of time together, Jane recalls. "He loved the Dadaists, and surrealist paintings."

Pete was also close with Richard Brautigan it seems, close enough at least that after he died, Brautigan came by to see Jane. "I must have told him that Pete had written this book of essays, which included him in it, and Brautigan offered to read them," she says.
That book consists of a series of essays on poets who were influenced by the Beats, and included chapters on Allen Ginsberg and Bob Kaufman. He didn't finish it -- but according to Jane, when Brautigan saw hi chapter, "he said he liked it."
According to Pagan Neil, who wrote a masters' thesis on Winslow the unpublished volume of critical essays was something Winslow had just completed at the time of his death, and includes passages on, among others, ruth weiss Janice Blue, Sotereo Torregian, Stephen Schwartz and W.S. Merwin. Along with a large quantity of other materials, it
was donated to the San Francisco Public Library around 1995, thanks to Jane Winslow.

Termed "the moving force behind a collection of Beat books and documents established at the North Beach branch" on Columbus Avenue, according to the San Francisco Examiner, her donation -- along with the branch's own holdings and donations from other 'local fans' of the Beats, was named the "Beat Writers' Collection."

Pagan Neil, who is a primary interpreter of Pete Winslow's work these days, and has examined those archives in detail. There's enough unpublished material in his Archives for over a dozen books: poems, critique, correspondence, plays, short stories," says Pagan, "His published chapbooks & DAISY are just the tip of the iceberg."

In Winslow's Archives are a series of "scrolls" (on Kerouac-style teletype paper) in which he looks back on his genesis as a poet, and how, after studying with Theodore Roethke in Washington, he went to San Francisco to try to become a 'beat" poet.  "I returned from San Francisco skinnier and somewhat discouraged," wrote Winslow, according to Pagan. "I had failed at being a beatnik -- and a lot of people who are successful at other things would be surprised at how easy it is to fail at that."

Pete's transition from would-be beat to full blown Surrealist is well laid out in his autobiographical scrolls, says Neil. Ample mention is made in the materials to a host of Pete's friends and colleagues, in his dedications and Epigraphs: Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, James Wright, Jack Spicer and Bob Kaufman were among those he studied deeply & corresponded with.  There are dedications also to St. Geraud, Breton, Robert Desnos,
Paul Eluard, Tristan Tzara, Roger Vitra, Yusef Lateef, William S. Burroughs, Roger McGough, Mike Evans, Brian
Patten, Franklin Rosemont and many more. Pagan also interviewed most of his contemporaries. And he's come to at least one conclusion -- Winslow's work is great for performance.  "Pete was very much a precursor of today's 'performance' poets," notes Neil. "He started off early working with jazz musicians and he loved to make people laugh. You might have called him a "stand up" poet."

One of Winslow's son's friends, the musician James Gleason, told Pagan he remembers seeing Pete when he was a young boy: "I never got to know Peter's dad very well, but we were lucky enough to hear him read poetry at the Coffee Gallery," Neil recalls Gleason saying. "And it was a great show for any of you who have seen it. Peter Senior was sort of all arms and effusiveness and seemed to have this great zest for life and this special sense of the wonderful luminous pleasures of the world."

The easiest access to Winslow's poetry itself is the City Lights book A DAISY IN THE MEMORY OF A SHARK
(City Lights Books, 1973). While it is hard to find, the book displays that luminosity, playfulness and pleasurable love of wordplay and informed wit that is the hallmark of Pete Winslow's poetry.

In fact, his work is peppered with impossibly brilliant and unforgettable gems of language.

The volume liberally references Frank O'Hara, Octavio Paz, Aime Cesare and Hans Arp among others, and is full of surprises. In a love poem he tells his beloved "You are the Statue of Liberty answering a huge stone telephone...You are a lion in a fur-lined cage..." Here's another: "How may I become your clothes when you are so lovely nude/This is the problem of the moon/Whose solution is to disappear slowly."

In an article which appeared in Oct 1990 in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, Winslow's work in DAISY was praised, how humor and invention has come into full integration and flowering in the poetry. They've got that right. The moon wears bandages. Beer flows from his hair. A woman licks the wounds of an eclipse.

In a poem dedicated to Paz the author compares the object of his affections to "a man with four hands having a heart attack."

In a playful take on the surrealist's iconic revolver, he declares "I bid a dollar for the white haired murderer/I bid two dollars for the muzzled rapist/I bid three dollars for the man who started the panic by yelling fire.../I bid my life for the girl tasting of poppies."

And in one of several poems to the Dadaist Arp, Winslow reaches the astonishing. Utilizing classic surrealistic cut-up technique, he masterfully swaps nouns through a series of metaphors, to startling effect:

It stains like a calling card
It announces like a severed foot
It bleeds like daybreak
It lights up the world like a wolf
It runs over the snow like a spirochete
It causes syphilis like a lawnmower
It cuts grass like a pencil sharpener...

More tersely, he paraphrases Cesare in this political poem, he paraphrases Cesare:

I am of no nationality ever contemplated
But I have a flag
One star in a blue field
And the river of human life
The living flag of an impossible nation
Which I intend to demand.

There is comedy and bathos and cubist deconstruction throughout, not to mention great themes. For example, a supreme sense of mortality may be traced through the book as well, mortality approached with all the weaponry available to man -- denial, defiance, dissembling, focus, sorrow, paradise-making: "songs rise from wormholes in my heart." And even acceptance: "I blink and half my life is over/Yet I am still making plans/In an instant I shall blink again/My eyes
are half-closed already/How heavy the vines are this year..."

DAISY is the blossoming of an aesthetic that is present in the very likable but somewhat less explosive, collection titled MONSTER COOKIES: POEMS 1962-66 (1967, np).This collection is full of a genial tone that nonetheless sets of sparks from page to page. There is 60s neo-dada glibness here and the kind of off-handed hip cleverness you might expect from someone who ran with the likes of Brautigan.

We are treated to serio-comic scenes in rapid order: Clark Kent ruins a birthday cake when he blows out his candles; at the greatest old folks home in the world, a geriatric woman spends nights putting flowers in the penises of sleeping men.

Or the poem in which God turns into a tree which offers more than coolness and shade -- it induces euphoria. "I lay there giggling madly/And an acorn fell in my mouth. I had swallowed an acorn of God!//What luminous visions/The high was too much/I threw up rose petals."

Here's one of the poems, in full:


The reason you can't see the top of this poem
And have trouble following it from one side of the
page to the other
Is that this poem is written in Cinerama
A comparatively new process invented by Walt Whitman
We are working at eliminating the seams.

Yet despite the glibness and the somewhat psychedelic entrenchment in pop culture, Winslow's underlying purposefulness is revealed from time to time, as in February Poem, inspired by a Texaco calendar, which reads in part:

The dog tooth flower is modest
The birds foot flower is shy
The violet is unassuming
With something gentle to say

So weave a mask of violets
To keep the world away...

While the City Lights book is long out of print, Pete Winslow's poems have a tendency to pop up on the net in unusual places and has surprising currency in 21st century America. His two line epithet ("Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater/Is Trochaic Tetrameter") is widely quoted. And his poem Hurricane Fred appears widely, especially among 'next generation' internet users, suggesting that, for all his obscurity, the man's influence is felt in unusual ways:

A guy came along on a horse
Shouting into a bullhorn that
the turtles were coming
We said so what
He told us they'd eat the furniture
Drink the gas from the cars
Run up the phone bill and keep the lights on in the daytime
Well we battened down the hatches
And sure enough they came millions of them
Moving in off the freeway
Eating doorknobs and drinking fuel
Wanting only to be loved.

We gave them love took them into our homes
Let them eat and drink what they wanted
Let them sleep with our daughters
And at last they went back into the swamp
Everyone pitched in to clean up the mess
We scrubbed the turtle poop off of everything
Until the town looked the same as before
Now there's just the children with shells on their backs
To remind us of Hurricane Fred.


This is supreme Winslow -- part playful, part incisive politics. Whereas Andre Breton and his fellows suggested that the best Surrealist poem is a man running down the street with a handgun, Winslow generally eschews the violent in politics -- his prescription is far more California Dada.


After you pay your taxes, buy all your licenses,
submit to the draft and spend 40 hours a week at the
office, you've still got maybe half an hour a day for
anarchy. Some of the things you can do are
not read the newspaper
not buy any advertised product jaywalk
play the accordion badly on street corners
write a subversive children's book
eat something inedible like treebark erasers or dynamite
go into a supermarket with various obscure items and
place them on the shelves
paint meat different colors
organize protest marches at classic music stations to
demand top 40 tunes
and enlist support for all candidates who campaign in
Uncle Sam costumes.
After you have more experience with anarchy you can improvise.

This poem, I'm told, is considered something of a chestnut among accordion players.

It is at this intersection of playful inventiveness and surrealistic deconstruction, more genial than angry, a synthesis of intellect and folksy wit, that Winslow's finest works reside. At an intersection informed by both LaMantia and Brautigan

And it is from that intersection that he continues to beckon us today.





Poetrybay seeks fine poetry, reviews, commentary and essays without restriction in form or content, and reserves first electronic copyright to all work published. All rights to published work revert to the author following publication. All Email submissions should be in body of email text.

To submit poems write to:

PO Box 114 
Northport NY 11768
or email us at

send comments to

first electronic copyright 2004 poetrybay. 
all rights revert to authors

website comments to