Thursday, April 28, 2005

"So Fucking Uncool"

It would be interesting to track the use of the words "cool" and "uncool" in relation to the Beat generation. I have come across a lot of references in the literature about women of the Beat generation to the fear of seeming "uncool," including the implication in the title of the recent book Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers. Supposedly, it was uncool to talk too much about one's emotional attachments or to be encumbered by a house and children. Therefore, men were "cool" while women were usually "uncool." Diane di Prima's 1961 poem "The Quarrel" attests to this language being used at the time in this way:

The Quarrel

You know I said to Mark I'm furious at you.

No he said are you bugged. He was drawing Brad who was asleep on the bed.

Yes I said I'm pretty god damned bugged. I sat down by the fire and stuck my feet out to warm them up.

Jesus I thought you think it's so easy. There you sit innocence personified. I didn't say anything else to him.

You know I thought I've got work to do too sometimes. In fact I probably have just as fucking much work to do as you. A piece of wood fell out of the fire and I poked it back in with my toe.

I am sick I said to the woodpile of doing dishes. I am just as lazy as you. Maybe lazier. The top of my shoe was scorched from the fire and I rubbed it where the suede was gone.

Just because I happen to be a chick I thought.

Mark finished one drawing and looked at it. Then he put it down and started another one.

It's damned arrogant of you I thought to assume that only you have things to do. Especially tonight.

And what a god damned concession it was for me to bother to tell you that I was bugged at all I said to the back of his neck. I didn't say it out loud.

I got up and went into the kitchen to do the dishes. And shit I thought I probably won't bother again. But I'll get bugged and not bother to tell you and after a while everything will be awful and I'll never say anything because it's so fucking uncool to talk about it. And that I thought will be that and what a shame.

Hey hon Mark yelled at me from the living room. It says here that Picasso produces fourteen hours a day.

--Diane DiPrima (c) 1961
Taken from No More Masks: An Anthology of Poems by Women

*****

How did this terminology come about? The Oxford English Dictionary has several dated entries for "cool." The most relevant are those below that identify the adjective "cool" as a jazz term from the 1940s and 50s, but I'd love to know more about its use specifically in relation to the Beats.

d. Applied to jazz music: restrained or relaxed in style; also applied to the performer; opp. HOT a. orig. U.S. 1947 (record by Charlie Parker Quartet, Dial 1015) Cool Blues. 1948 Life 11 Oct. 138 Bebop: New Jazz School is Led by Trumpeter Who is Hot, Cool and Gone. 1950 Christian Sci. Monitor 8 Feb. 15 Bop is ‘cool’ jazz in contrast to the ‘hot’ variety of the swing or Dixieland schools. 1953 Melody Maker 9 May 5 Hot and coolyou've got to hear the lot. 1955 L. FEATHER Encycl. Jazz (1956) 30 Cool jazz to most musicians and students denotes the understated, behind-the-beat style typified by the arrangements and soloists on the Davis records. 1957 H. PANASSIÉ in S. Traill Concerning Jazz 61 The ‘cool’ musicians..stopped using the traditional jazz technique and tone. 1962 J. WAIN Strike Father Dead IV. 204 The new developments which were to become first bebop and then just bop and finally cool jazz.

e. Hence, characteristic of those who favour ‘cool’ music; relaxed; unemotional; also used loosely as a general term of approval; cool cat: see CAT n.1 2c. colloq. (orig. U.S.). 1948 New Yorker 3 July 28 The bebop people have a language of their own... Their expressions of approval include ‘cool’! 1953 Time 14 Sept. 68/3 The latest Tin Pan Alley argot, where ‘cool’ means good, ‘crazy’ means wonderful. 1955 N.Y. Times 22 May VI. 19/2 Maybe it's all these new buildings breeding more of these cool Brooks Brothers cats. 1955 Sci. News Let. 1 Oct. 221/2 This is not cool chatter between some young hep-cats in a smoke-filled jazz joint. 1957 Sunday Mail (Glasgow) 10 Feb. 11 Gonethe best, in the top rung, the coolest. 1958 Observer 23 Nov. 16/3 On one side was the frenetic..bumptiousness of the rock-'n'-rollers, on the other the calculated indifference of the cool cats. 1959 Ibid. 25 Oct. 29/8 They got long, sloppy haircuts and wide knot ties and no-press suits with fat lapels. Very cool.

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