Lenore Kandel: Beat poet whose 'The Love Book' fell victim to one of San Francisco's longest ever court cases

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Much like Leonora Carrington was to the Surrealist movement, the visionary poet and counter-culture activist Lenore Kandel was a peer and a participant, not a moll, muse or girlfriend. She helped to set the bar higher, bridged the Beat and hippie eras, was a presence in Kerouac's Big Sur and had a cameo in Kenneth Anger's film Invocation of My Demon Brother. Yet in spite of Kandel's influence and cause célèbre status, her poetry was lost for decades.

"Poetry is never compromise," she declared in the introduction to Word Alchemy (1967). "It is the manifestation/translation of a vision, an illumination, an experience..." She proved that with The Love Book (1966). It contained four poems and ran to eight pages. This "holy erotica" – one poem was called "To Fuck with Love" – was bound to get the goat of the moral majority. While followers of US literature and free speech pontificate about the obscenity trials of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Michael McClure's The Beard and Allen Ginsberg's Howl, Kandel's brush with San Francisco's city fathers has been unfairly sidelined.

In November 1966 police raided the City Lights Bookstore and the Psychedelic Shop. They impounded her book on the grounds that it "excited lewd thoughts". For the future governor of California, Ronald Reagan, running on a ticket about cleaning up society, Kandel's book was a stick with which to beat the Bay Area's burgeoning hippie scene. The bust led to one of the city's longest-running court cases, going on appeal to the California Supreme Court, which upheld the obscenity ruling. In The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, 1955-1960 (1991) Warren French called it the city police's "last highly publicized case of attempted censorship". A federal court finally overturned the prosecution in 1974. The Love Book was lost until 2003.

Although Lenore Kandel was born in New York, within months her family moved to Los Angeles. Her father, Aben Kandel, was a novelist and scriptwriter with Hollywood eyes. About as good as it got was James Cagney and Ann Sheridan starring in the 1940 film of his 1936 novel City for Conquest, unless counting screenplays for I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Kid Monk Baroni, with Leonard Nomoy in the title role.

Aged 12, his daughter was reading about Buddhism and world religion – cardinal elements in her worldview and poetry. One early biography read like a parody of the "sin-steeped story of today's "beat" generation!" tagline for the exploitation movie Live Fast, Die Young. It included early employment as a belly dancer in Turkish cabaret, French teacher and model. Kandel, though, was also writing. An Exquisite Navel, A Passing Dragon and A Passing Dragon Seen Again all appeared in 1959. In 1960 she moved to San Francisco where she fell in with the poets Lew Welch and Gary Snyder.

In Brenda Knight's Women of the Beat Generation (1996), she recalled, "I'd been meaning to come to San Francisco, and I decided to come here for a weekend and I stayed. I met Lew and all the people in that whole trip and when Jack came into town, we all went to Big Sur."

Jack was Jack Kerouac, and in the Kerouac way of fictionalising friends, she became Romana Swartz in his novel Big Sur. He fictionalised her ethnicity but not her ample charms. She was "a big Rumanian monster beauty of some kind I mean with big purple eyes and very tall and big (but Mae West big) ... but also intelligent, well-read, writes poetry, is a Zen student, knows everything."

Kandel took part in poetry events, including reading at the University of California Poetry Conference in November 1964 – on a bill that included Robert Creeley, James Koller and its organiser, Charles Olson. Around 1966, she became involved with Haight-Ashbury's "community anarchist" group the Diggers. They organised free food, medical care, accommodation and free shindigs with music laid on by Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead. Kandel's activism included sourcing food, driving and Young Digger Poetry Readings. Just ahead of San Francisco's Summer of Love, she took part in the Great Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, sharing the stage with Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, McClure and others. It was her 35th birthday. McClure later told the San Francisco Chronicle, "The entire crowd of 20,000 or 30,000 people sang 'Happy Birthday' to her."

Months later, her next book of poetry, Word Alchemy, appeared. Kandel's poetry was no-quarter explicit. "I kiss your shoulder and it reeks of lust/the lust of erotic angels fucking the stars" ("To Fuck with Love Phase III") is small beer. Yet her poetry was deeply resonant of her immersion in South Asian mysticism in which spirituality may take allegorical paths, including ones of eroticism and carnality, to divinity. Her "Small Prayer for Falling Angels" communicated an understanding of Hinduism's Goddess Kali that Westerners rarely have. "Kali-Ma, remember the giving of life as well as the giving of death... Kali-Ma, remember the desire is for enlightenment and not oblivion".

In 1970 she and her then-soulmate, the Digger and Hells Angel Bill "Sweet William" Fritsch, were involved in a serious motorcycle crash. Her spine wrecked, she was left permanently disabled. She withdrew, wrote but never published again. In 2005 her work appeared in German translation as Das Liebesbuch/Wortalchemie. A volume reprinting The Love Book and Word Alchemy with new, unpublished poems is long heralded.

Ken Hunt

Lenore Kandel, poet and counter-culture activist: born New York City 14 January 1932; died San Francisco 18 October 2009.