Women Writers You Should Know About #11 Elise Cowen
Elise Cowen (1933-1962) was one of the leading female poets of the Beat Generation. A muse and lover of Allan Ginsberg (his heterosexual experiment), she was born into a middle-class family in New York and began to write poetry early on, after being influenced by poets such as Emily Dickinson and Ezra Pound.
She became friends with Ginsberg whilst attending Barnard College in the 50’s and eventually moved in with him and his male lover. Cowen, a lifelong depressive, struggled with her family’s expectations of her career; her writing was considered by them to be, at best, embarrassing and at worst, pornographic. Her near-obsession with Ginsberg was also troubling to them; it was a behaviour she had first displayed when sleeping with one of her tutors at Barnard.
Her place in the Beat Generation has been mostly overlooked – as have most of the female Beats – despite their radical politics, the male Beat poets were as dismissive of female writers as society at the time. Ginsberg himself stated ‘The social organization which is most true of itself to the artist is the boy gang’. Cowen’s poetry, especially the most known of her work ‘The Lady is a Humble Thing‘, alludes to this indifference:
The lady is a humble thing
Made of death and water
The fashion is to dress it plain
And use the mind for border.
Cowen’s relationship with Ginsberg ended and she began an affair with a woman. In the years leading up to her death, she began to experience ever more frequent psychotic episodes and eventually, in February 1962 at the age of 28, she took her own life, jumping through a window at her parent’s apartment and falling seven stories to her death.
After her death, most of her work was destroyed on her parent’s wishes and only one notebook remained. This work has since been collected in ‘Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments‘. As one of the few female representative in the Beat Generation, she is now influencing a new generation of female writers. Let’s hope, this time, she’s never forgotten.
The first eye opens by the sun’s warmth
to stare at it
The second eye is ripped open by an
apothecary & propped with toothpicks,
systems & words
and likes to blink in mirrors
I only know there may be more because
one hurts when I think too much
The first eye is blind
there is no other