Elise Nada Cowen
Beat Generation Poet
1933-1962Elise Cowen was born in Long Island, into a wealthy, high-strung, Jewish family. She went to Barnard College where she met Joyce Johnson and Leo Skir. These two friends have provided reminiscences and insights into a woman who wrote poetry but did not publish any work during her short life.
After college, Elise took a job in New York as a typist, then quit and moved to San Francisco. According to her friend, Leo Skir, she lived with a drunken Irish artist and spent most of her time at a bar called "The Place". She got pregnant, had a hysterectomy, returned to New York and eventually moved back into her parent's home in Washington Heights.
On February 1, 1962 she jumped through a closed window from her parents' living room and fell to her death.
Subsequent to her death some of her poetry was found and has been published. She is a prominent figure in Johnson's Beat Generation memoir Minor Characters, the two having met in 1951 at Barnard College.
It was through a philosophy professor at Barnard, Alex Greer, that Elise became intertwined with the Beat Generation and some of its more well-known personalities, such as Allen Ginsberg. In the spring of 1953 Elise had a date with Ginsberg and they discovered they both knew a mutual friend, Carl Solomon. It was to Solomon that Ginsberg dedicated his powerful poem Howl. Later, Ginsberg will refer to Elise as an "intellectual madwoman." However, in 1953, Ginsberg's life was just about to begin a significant transformation as he prepared to rebel against his "normal" self, which ultimately left little room for women. Johnson writes: "Thus Elise was a moment in Allen's life. In Elise's life, Allen was an eternity."
Elise Cowen is representative of the women in the Beat Generation. These women can now only be considered "minor characters" ironically. Their influence on the movement is no longer questioned. As their voices get heard, their impact and influence will continue to be more clearly recognized.
As we re-view and revise our understanding of how certain members of the "Silent Generation" became howling dissenters, how the outer-directed children of the middle-class became the meditative and inner-directed spiritual precursors of the more politically active rebels of the next generation, it is women like Elise Cowen who can provide the clues.
Elise Nada Cowen
Twenty-seven years is enough
Mother--too late--years of meanness--I'm sorry
Peter--Holy Rose Youth
Berry--Such womanly bravery
Joyce--So girl beautiful
Howard--Baby take care
Leo--open the windows and Shalom
Carol--Let it happen
Let me out now please--
--Please let me in
this is believed to be her last poem
The Lady...The Lady is a humble thing
Made of death and water
The fashion is to dress it plain
And use the mind for border
During that first weekend at Barnard I met a girl whom my instincts immediately told me to avoid...Her dark hair was ungraciously scraped back with a rubber band, and acne flared under the ragged bangs on her forehead. Behind her black-rimmed glasses, eyes looked out at you sorrowfully and fiercely...I did not want to know Elise Cowen...I resisted friendship with her for about a month...We became friends...We went and had coffee...we ended up cutting [class], unwilling to tear ourselves away from a conversation of such inexhaustible intimacy. Most of our conversations were like that during the ten years that we knew each other, so that even now it's sometimes a shock to remember Elise is dead and I can't pick up a phone and speak to her.--Elise Cowen
--Joyce Johnson, Minor Characters
1997 Dharma Beats Roster
1997 Elise Cowen Cosmic Player Plate
Published: December 5, 1996
Updated: December 24, 1996
© 1996, 1997 by the Cosmic Baseball Association