“Hymn to the Rebel Café”

by Ed Sanders
   From the ancient poet who “came in a skiff / across the Nile / with satires in his pocket” to such 20thcentury rebels as Jean-Paul Sartre and Janis Joplin, “Hymn to the Rebel Café” praises the unruly tradition of chaos seekers, musicians, artists, and thinkers who have reshaped history’s paradigms-and the venues that have supported them. In this poem, ed sanders celebrates the relentless spirit of rebellion throughout human history.
   He opens,
   They were planning a revolution
   To end want & hunger
   They were plotting a new form of thinking
   They were arguing in blue smoke
   A direction for art
   They were ready to change the world, “to topple
   the towers// in the rebel café.”
   For Sanders, more than just the individual rebellious spirit but also any gathering of the likeminded serves to incubate insurgent thinking. Thus he uses the café both literally as a locus for such groups and symbolically as a churchlike venue to frame his poem. Just as a church is any space where two or more gather in religious concert, the café functions here in rebellious concert where hymns of holy maintenance are replaced with ideas for widespread change. In calling his poem a hymn, Sanders ironically praises the rebel from the pews of the oppressor.
   In addition, most of Sanders’s poems were written in the bardic tradition, to be performed, often with the aid of special lyres designed by Sanders himself. Thus, in concept, the poem is literally hymnlike. As Dan Barth writes, reviewing the work after hearing Sanders perform the poem, “Of course it is impossible to capture [the performed poem] on the printed page, but it’s the next best thing and a good approximation. The line breaks correspond well with breaths and stops.” “Hymn to the Rebel Café” is intentionally infused with music. Sanders sings the praises of the modern cafés that have acted as venues and safe havens for artists, bohemians, and radicals. He hails “The Philadelphia Taverns / of 1776,” the “Café Royale / on 2nd Avenue” and “Austin’s Fox Bar, Paris 1904.” He goes on: “Hail to the Stray Dog, to the Café Trieste! / Hail to the, o Total Assault Cantina! / Salutes, o Greater Detroit Zen Zone! / Hail, o Sempiternal Scrounge Lounge of Topeka!” The list continues. Unlike churches, however, cafés are far more volatile and prone to the whims of the market and to the scrutiny of the state to which its denizens stand in constant opposition. Sanders writes, “We’ll have to keep on / opening & closing our / store fronts, our collectives, / our social action centers / till tulips are in the sky.”
   Yet the rebel café will never be totally gone; it will only shift from one location to another because, again like the church, it is not a location so much as the intention of its members. Sanders closes, “The cafes come / The cafes wane / but the best and the final rebel café / is inside the human brain.”
■ Barth, Dan. Review of Hymn to the Rebel Café. Literary Kicks: Available online. URL: www.litkicks.com. Accessed May 31, 2006.
   Jennifer Cooper

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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