Bohemia: a region formerly a kingdom that was absorbed into the Austrian Empire and is now the Czech Republic. In the 19th century, because many of them originated in Bohemia, the Roma (gypsies) were often called “Bohemians”. In Paris of the 1830s and 1840s, their marginalized way of life was duplicated by many struggling artists and writers, who were said to lead “la vie de Bohème” (the bohemian life). It was chronicled in a loosely connected set of short narratives by the French author Henri Murger and published under the title Scènes de la vie de Bohème, later turned into one of Puccini’s most popular operas. Many people who have no idea of any of this still know what the adjective “bohemian” means, or at least the updated term “boho.” Just possibly the earliest manifestation of the phenomenon came in 18th century Madrid, when some of the more attractive and adventurous members of the underclass began to dress in a sexy, dandified manner, styling themselves as majos and majas. Anyway, the basic ingredients of the bohemian existence are: poverty, substandard housing, get-noticed clothes, sexual license, a dedication to popular art, and contempt for the bourgeoisie. Drink and drug-taking are usually involved as well. After Murger’s novel was published, bohemian outposts sprang up in many world capitals, New York no exception. There, the center was Greenwich Village from the 1890s forward, with a comparable scene beginning in Harlem in the 1920s. The Village of the 1950s housed what became the most famous of all bohemian outbreaks, the Beat movement, which linked arms across the continent with the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, and across the Atlantic with London’s Soho. No one doubts that bohemianism has been a steady influence on contemporary culture since the 1950s, witness the large numbers of those who now call themselves hipsters.
There was a period when I lived the vie de Bohème myself. In March of 1967 I moved to East 11th Street between Avenues A and B in New York. Rent came to about $45 a month for a studio with the bathtub in the kitchen. When you lowered the metal lid on it, you had a counter-top. The toilet was in a watercloset. The bed was a mattress on the floor. People who used drugs dropped by at all hours. We listened to the music of Richie Havens, Donovan, Hendrix and Dylan; caught glimpses of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky at the corner bodega. One night when a dozen assorted gypsies and freaks were sprawled around on the floor, the FBI knocked. I didn’t let them in and brushed aside their questions. The apartment was burgled twice until there was nothing left that any thief could manage to fence. As the song said, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,” right? But you still don’t want to lose your mind. I had a bad acid trip, so bad I was afraid of ever swallowing another tab. The eleven-hour-long ordeal left me feeling that a crack had opened in the substance of consciousness, one that would never seal up again. Also, I knew the fuzz would soon be back. One day I packed my few clothes and books and left. The experiment was over, and I was glad to have left it behind. Still, I remember the sense of freedom, of not having appointments to keep and following the whim of the moment. Improvising your day as jazz musicians do when they jam. Instant intimacy with strangers, most of whom managed to conceal that they were rolling stones lost in the Juarez of the hispanophone Lower East Side, with no clue how to manage or where they were going next. What came to be called “the Summer of Love” was about to begin, but it would have to unfold without me. How did it feel? How does it feel? The crack in consciousness was scary, but it let in some light that has stayed with me. I saw (and see) how arbitrary our sense of certainty is, a fiction of coherence that is maya, illusion, behind which was a shimmering void, a nothingness, not even “Strawberry Fields forever.” Once you’ve seen this, normal, regulated consensus reality loses its tyrannical power over you. You can play along with it, but you don’t see it as dictatorial and inescapable. I sometimes wish—painfully wish—I could go back to that chapter of my life, the chapter I call “My Bohemia.” I was young. Memory has a powerful ally in youth, prompting many backward glances. And sometimes you write down what those glances reveal.
Alfred Corn is the author of eleven books of poems, the most recent titled Unions (2015) and two novels, the second titled Miranda’s Book, which also appeared in 2015. His two collections of essays are The Metamorphoses of Metaphor and Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007. He has received the Guggenheim, the NEA, an Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and one from the Academy of American Poets. He has taught at Yale, Columbia, Connecticut College, The University of Cincinnati, and UCLA. In 2013 he was made a Life Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge. A new collection of essays titled Arks & Covenants appeared in May of 2017. In October of 2016, Roads Taken, a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Alfred Corn’s first book All Roads at Once was held at Poets’ House in New York City, and in November 2017 he was inducted into the Georgia Writers’ Hall of Fame.