Poetland: The Work and Art of the Beat Poets

Tracing their roots to New York City and San Francisco a group of poets, known as the Beat Generation, were actively causing a ruckus during the mid to late 1950s. They were often thought to be a precursor to the 1960s counterculture movement and were interested in experimental drugs, the natural world, Zen Buddhism, and other Asian religious practices. Inspired by modernist literature, jazz rhythms, and the Surrealists, their poetry and novels were free verse and stream of consciousness. Some well known names of the Beat Poets are Jack Kerouac, Willam Boroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, including Reedies Lew Welch ‘50, Philip Whalen ‘51, and Gary Snyder ‘51.

Photograph of three fanned out publications titled Janus. The publication's cover on the left is mostly plain with blue characters written on the front. The publication's cover in the middle is light blue with angled navy blue lines and occasional red boxes. The publication's cover on the right is a depiction of a two-faced person with a beard, assumed to be an image of the roman god Janus.
Photograph courtesy of Kathryn Zix.

While at Reed, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, and Lew Welch met and became friends. The three of them lived together in the Portland neighborhood of Sellwood, and created a “literarti subculture” where they shared their works with one another and in the student led publication Janus.

Welch, an English major, wrote his thesis on Gertrude Stein, being drawn to poetry after reading her work.1 His thesis was eventually published posthumously as How I Read Gertrude Stein. Snyder, who attended Reed on a “grant-in-aid” scholarship, was an Anthropology major whose thesis focused on the analysis of a Haida myth.2 He drew from multiple fields of study (including anthropology, folkloristics, psychology, and literary theory) to write his thesis under Loyd Reynolds. Whalen enrolled as a Literature major who attended Reed on the GI Bill and wrote his thesis, The Calendar, on Robert Graves’ translation of “The Song of Amergin.”3

Tan poster with green text and an image of a person holding a sword aloft riding on the back of an animal. The text reads: POEMS from the works of Gary Snyder, Phil Whalen, and Lew Welch read by Lew Welch. Reed College Faculty Office Building Lounge. Wednesday, 2 November, 8:00 P.M. --25 cents.
Lew Welch Poetry Reading.

After graduating from Reed, both Whalen and Snyder worked as fire-spotters on Mount Baker in Washington. In 1952, they moved to San Francisco to hone their craft as poets. While in San Francisco, they befriended fellow poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Amiri Baraka, Diane di Prima, and Lawrence Ferlenghetti, co-founder of City Lights Booksellers and Publishers. Both Whalen and Snyder were major influences on Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums,4 and in 1955, Snyder and Whalen performed at the famous Six Gallery reading (where Allen Ginsberg debuted Howl). The Six Gallery reading is considered the birth of the Beat Generation, and San Francisco’s bookstore, City Lights, published and distributed Beat literature. Welch was not present at this reading because following graduation he moved to New York, and later Chicago, to work as an advertising copywriter and enrolled in a Master’s program at the University of Chicago. After becoming disillusioned with Chicago, he eventually settled in San Francisco to focus on his poetry.5 However, despite being dispersed throughout the country, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Snyder, Welch, and Whalen, as well as Allen Ginsberg, frequently visited Reed to share their poetry. 

Woodblock image of Smokey the Bear holding a shovel with his right hand and surveying with his left, standing on top of a car in blue ink.
Smokey Bear Woodcut by Michael Corr in The Fudo Trilogy by Gary Snyder.

Snyder’s love of the natural world led to his interest in Buddhism and North American Indigenous religious practices, which can be seen throughout his work and personal life. First introduced to mountain climbing at thirteen, Snyder had “climbed a number of summits” by the time he was twenty.6  In 1955, the First Zen Institute of America gave Snyder a scholarship to study Buddhism in Japan. In 1956, Snyder arrived in Japan, where he spent the next decade living between there and California. His first two poetry collections, Myth and Texts and Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, were based on his travels in Japan. Snyder went on to win a Pulitzer prize in 1974 for his collection of poems entitled Turtle Island, as well as numerous other prizes for his poetry. 

Hand-drawn image of a bear holding a staff in one hand and ring of keys in the other, standing in a lotus flower with the sun behind his head on tan paper. The text reads: 31:W:59. the end, of a month of Sundays. Hurrah for the church. RUIN. Loud Music Now. Big. Goofing. Down down down. No limit. No lower limit. feature that! {if you will.}
Bodhisattva in Bear Wold
Philip Whalen
Bodhisattva in Bear World by Philip Whalen.

Similarly interested in nature, Buddhism, and Zen practices, Whalen’s poetry presents these themes with his unique stream of consciousness style. Along with this style, he frequently sketched in order to get his pen “warmed up” and these illustrations often accompanied his writing.7 In 1973, Whalen became a Zen monk in Kyoto, Japan and spent two decades at the Zen centers in San Francisco and Santa Fe. He became a Zen priest in the 1970s, and in 1991 he became the abbott for the Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco until he had to retire due to his health. He continued writing and publishing poetry while fulfilling his abbott duties. 

Welch’s poetry also focused on nature along with the discomfort of modern and urban America. Jazz music was a major influence, and music as a whole, is found generously in Welch’s work.8 He performed and published several collections of poetry in the 1960s including Wobbly Rock and Hermit Poems. From 1965 to 1970 he taught a workshop as part of the University of California Extension. In the mid-60s he met Magda Cregg and  her teenage son, Hugh, who later adopted Welch’s first name as his stage name to become Huey Lewis.9 In 1971, Welch disappeared into the Sierra Nevada Mountains and was presumed dead.

“Poetland: The Work and Art of the Beat Poets,” is on display across from  the reference desk on the first floor of the library through April 2023, to learn more about the poets featured here please visit the exhibit. For additional information and primary sources visit Reed College Special Collections and Archives Monday-Friday, 10am-4pm on Lower Level 2 of the library or to email us at archives@reed.edu.

Photograph courtesy of Kathryn Zix.

Source List:

1 Welch, L. (1996). How I Read Gertrude Stein. Grey Fox Press.

2 Snyder, Gary. Interview by John Sheehy. July 22, 1998. Reed College Oral History Project, Reed College Special Collections and Archives.

3 Schneider, D. (2015). Crowded by Beauty: The Life and Zen of Poet Philip Whalen: The Life and Zen of Poet Philip Whalen. University of California Press.

4 Suiter, J. (2003). Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Jack Kerouac (1st ed.). Counterpoint.

5 Welch, L. (1973) Chicago Poem. Ring of Bone (1st ed.). Grey Fox Press.

6 Snyder, G. (1996). Mountains and rivers without end (1st ed.). Counterpoint.

7 Whalen, P. (1966). Preface. In Highgrade: Doodles, poems. preface, Coyote’s Journal.

8 Cregg, M. (1997). Hey Lew: Homage to Lew Welch. Magda Cregg.

9 Cregg, M. (1997). Hey Lew: Homage to Lew Welch. Magda Cregg.

Scratching the Surface: One Reedie’s Work with Vanport and the Girl Scouts of America

By Ronan Battistoni

Sepia image of a woman wearing a long coat and dark gloves, tucking a bag under her arm, in front of a house next to a short palm tree.

[Opal Weimer poses for a photo, circa 1940]1

This article draws from the Opal Weimer-Tice papers, a new addition to Reed’s Archives. Weimer was born in 1900 and grew up in the St John’s neighborhood of Portland before going on to receive her diploma from Reed College in 1922. After graduating, she relocated to California with her first husband, William Fostvedt, to become a teacher of physical education. The couple had two children before their divorce in 1940. By August of 1943, Weimer had remarried to Chicagoan textbook salesman Fred Tice.

This article focuses on a brief period between Weimer’s two marriages, during which she lived in Vanport, a warworkers’ housing project located between Portland and Vancouver. It’s the story of a young woman attempting to find purpose in a period of mass global turmoil, while simultaneously acting as the sole caretaker to her two young children. It’s one of the most dramatic chapters of Weimer’s life, but only a small part of what her papers contain. If you’re interested in learning more about her story, the Archives team encourages you to reach out–we’d love to show you around!

Black and white scanned images of Opal Weimer, standing on a lawn smiling, wearing a long skirt and long-sleeved shirt, and James Hamilton leaning against a brick building wearing a three-piece suit. The text in the image reads:
"Opal Rae Weimer  Portland. Life has no terrors for Opal. Achievement comes about as easy to her as humdrum existence to the rest of us. Her cups testify to this, as well as her election to class office, athletic council, and presidency of the women's dormitory. She sings alto in the chorus and dispenses chewing gum and golf balls in the Co-op. Opal deserted us for one year at California, but returned to the fold for her last year. She is modest in spite of her ability at husky jobs. Not even pleading calls to go strolling will distract her when her mind is made up to study. Her ambitions include a brilliant future.
James Thompson Hamilton  Portland. This man rounded his career of activity upon the Reed college campus with the presidency of the Senior class. Quest, Drama Club, football, basketball, track, house presidencies- all these were meat for him. Besides these Hamilton as a member of the old firm of Ham and Hunter and as an independent more recently was the star photographer of the campus, and has been responsible to a great measure for the success of the three Griffins. In spite of all these responsibilities, Hamilton is a cheerful cuss, and we wonder why he wasn't called Sunny instead of Jimmie."

[Opal Weimer and James Hamilton’s senior photographs for the Reed College Griffin, circa 1922]2

In late March of 1943, three years following their divorce, Opal Weimer sent a letter to her ex-husband, William Fostvedt, requesting his approval to relocate from California to Portland with their two young children, Cyndy and Nancy, for one year. James Hamilton, an old friend from her days at Reed, had offered her a position establishing extended services (before- and after-school) programming for children of war workers in Vanport City, a federal housing complex located between Portland and Vancouver. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Weimer: not only would she be able to work full-time without worrying about childcare, thanks to the Extended Services program, but she would also have the chance to shape a radical new project from the ground up and to “feel an integral part of the great war effort.”3

Sepia photograph of two young girls bundled up with gloves, winter hats, and coats and a woman wearing a long coat and dress sitting between them. There is snow covering the ground and some is on the clothes and shoes of the girls.

[Opal Weimer photographed with her daughters, Cyndy (left) and Nancy (right) circa 1943]4

Fostvedt enthusiastically supported Weimer’s decision, explaining that he had long desired to enlist in the military and join the fight against fascism in Europe but was prevented from doing so by his poor health.5 As a result, he was able to sympathize with her desire to contribute to the war effort through the limited avenues that were available to her, even though it meant being separated from his children for an extended period of time.6

Weimer spent the months prior to her arrival in Vanport traveling the East Coast with her children, learning as much as she could about Vanport and its needs from federal educational personnel, librarians, and schoolteachers while conducting publicity interviews with national magazines.7 She found that opinions on Vanport were mixed; while federal housing projects were much more widespread at the time, Vanport was by far the largest, and faced a number of unique challenges due to the historical, political, and geographic conflicts that led to its construction.

Black and white image depicting the interior living room. There is a couch, radio, lamp, a child reading in a chair, a table in front of a window, a child reading on a twin bed, and rugs on the floor. Typed on the image is: Interior, Denver Ave. Housing Project, Nov. 3, 1942, Kaiser Company Inc. Portland, Ore.

[A Vanport publicity photo, depicting the interior of a standard apartment living room]8

Vanport was built in 1943 to support employees of the Kaiser Shipyards, which opened near Portland and Vancouver shortly before the US entered World War II in 1941. Because the military draft had created a shortage of able-bodied, white male laborers, Kaiser’s workforce was primarily reliant on women and Black people. However, Portland’s aggressive redlining policies consigned Black residents to the severely overcrowded Albina district. Such limited housing and poor living conditions made it hard for Kaiser to retain employees, so when the Housing Authority of Portland resisted changes to their racist zoning policies, Kaiser went to the federal government to secure funding and support for a new housing project.9

Sepia image depicting the exterior of a Vanport apartment block. There are several cars parked in gravel or dirt in front of a two-story complex. Typed on the image is: Parking Area and A Unit, Denver Ave. Housing Project, Feb. 9, 1943, Kaiser Company Inc. Portland, Ore.
[Vanport apartment block exteriors]10

Vanport was haphazardly constructed in under a year on the Columbia River floodplain, surrounded by 15 to 25 foot dikes on all sides.11 By the time Weimer arrived in June of 1943, only two years after its construction, it was Oregon’s second largest city and the largest housing project in the US. Unfortunately, due to its hasty construction, Vanport wasn’t able to measure up to what had been advertised to the families who moved there–sometimes from across the country, at great personal cost. During her initial interviews to assess the needs of local parents, Weimer found that stress levels among the shipyard workers were high, and living conditions crude. One working mother, the subject of one of Weimer’s case studies, complained that

All the things that are gonna be here, they said was already here waiting for us… The day we got into Portland after 4 days and 4 nights on the train–it was just awful. It was raining, and we had to go to a hotel. $6 a day for a room, and we had to have two rooms. The next day at the yards they said we’d just have to wait until Vanport was ready, or they’d try to find someplace else for us to live.12

Meanwhile, in a survey for a Vanport school newsletter where fifth graders were asked what the word “Vanport” brought to mind, one young girl quipped “Mudport” in reference to the mud coating the city and its roads, a byproduct of the Pacific Northwest’s heavy rainfall and Vanport’s perpetually unfinished landscaping.13

Sepia image depicting the construction site of a school building. Typed on the image is: School, Denver Ave. Housing Project, Feb. 17, 1943, Kaiser Company Inc. Portland, Ore.
[A Vanport school construction site]14

For a time, Weimer worked with other Vanport school representatives to put a positive spin on the project’s problems by comparing their struggles to those of the pioneers who settled Oregon over a hundred years prior. In one draft for an article, she writes, “the immediate problems here are muddy, confused and growing like weeds, yet the very confusion is but part of the valiant effort toward the future beauty and orderliness of a new pioneer town.”15 It soon became apparent, though, that Vanport’s administration didn’t have sufficient plans in place to resolve the most serious problems. Schools lacked adequate facilities and supplies, enrollment was low, and with an end to the war in sight, massive numbers of Kaiser employees were preparing to leave Vanport and Portland.16

Meanwhile, by early July, Weimer’s working relationship with Hamilton had become strained by his unreciprocated attempts to engage in an affair with her.17 Weimer soon decided to end her contract early, remarry to Fred Tice (whom Hamilton had introduced her to earlier that summer),18 and leave Portland for Chicago.19

Wedding photograph of a man wearing a suit posed behind a woman, both looking into the camera. Dated July 30, 1943. Photograph by Gladys Gilbert, Portland.
[Weimer and Tice photographed together on their wedding day, July 30, 1943]20

Still, Weimer struggled to readjust to the constrained life of a housewife, feeling that it left one “lacking in continuity, and with one’s own personal life left lying about with so many tag ends.”21 She continued to keep up with Hamilton (albeit on uncomfortable and often hostile terms) through letters for several years, regularly inquiring about the status of Vanport and the Extended Services program. They cut off contact with each other entirely in 1945, after Hamilton berated Weimer for her personal and professional conduct. She preserved the letter, after adding her own label to the envelope: “this is kept as an example of neuroticism, extreme bad taste, and unjustifiable error!”22

Weimer continued to keep up with publicly-available news on Vanport until, three years later, the project was destroyed in a flood. In the immediate aftermath of the flood, Portland residents came together to support the survivors; Reed College hosted a clothing donation drive23, and offered single men temporary housing at a reduced cost in the Foster and Scholz dormitories.24 Vanport was never rebuilt, though, leaving over fifteen thousand people without homes. The disaster eventually forced integration in Portland neighborhoods that had formerly been predominantly or exclusively white-owned. The only other surviving remainder of Vanport is Portland State University, formerly known as the Vanport Extension Center.25

Oregon Journal newspaper with headline "Educator Succumbs. Monday, June 2, 1958." "Prof. James T. Hamilton, 58, head of the department of education at Reed college since January 1, 1950, died late Saturday. Hamilton was the superintendent of schools for Vanport City during World War II. Born in Illinois, Hamilton was a 1922 graduate of Reed college. He served from 1924-1932 as superintendent of schools at Newberg. For the next 18 month he received his master's degree. In 1934 he became director of admissions for Reed college. During his career in education, Hamilton also did graduate work at the University of Southern California, at Columbia university teachers college, and at Stanford university. 
Hamilton is survived by a son, James Jr. Funeral services have been set for 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at J. P. Finely & Son."
[James Hamilton’s obituary, printed in the Oregon Journal and preserved by Weimer]26

Hamilton went on to work at Reed College as the head of the Department of Education. He passed away in 1958, ten years after the flood, at the age of 58.27 In 2017, he was commended by the Oregon senate for his work in ensuring the integration of Vanport’s schools despite resistance from other administrators, as well as hiring some of Oregon’s first Black schoolteachers.28

Six people loading up a car with sleeping bags, two of the people are standing on the car's doorframe with the doors open and the other three are standing on the ground. Five of them are wearing girl scout uniforms and the person in the middle, Opal Weimer, is wearing a hat and coat and holding a bag at the door of the car.
[Weimer preparing for a trip with Girl Scouts, Chicago, 1953]29

Meanwhile, Weimer spent the rest of her life as a devoted wife and mother, eventually finding new outlets for professional fulfillment through work with the Girl Scouts. She wrote and edited the Lodestar (a newsletter for the Girl Scouts of Santa Clara, California) for years, served on the Girl Scouts’ Bicentennial committees, and worked as Girl Scout Roundup staff alongside her daughters.30 She received the Thanks badge in 1965, on the 25th anniversary of her involvement with the organization, and was commended by them for her work following her death in 1978.31

Black and white photo of Opal Weimer, seated in a rocking chair wearing a floral dress and beaded necklace, and  Fred Tice, seated in a rocking chair wearing a button up shirt and pants. The couple are looking at each other.
[Weimer and Tice photographed together in their garden, approx. 1960]32

[1] Opal poses in front of a house. 1940. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Photos of Opal. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.

[2] The Griffin. Reed College, 1922.

[3] Weimer, Opal. Letter to William Fostvedt. 22 March 1943.

[4] Opal, Cyndy, and Nancy in the snow. 1943. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Photos of Opal. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.

[5] Fostvedt, William. Letter to Opal Weimer. 25 March 1943.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Weimer, Opal. Letter to James Hamilton. 24 March 1943.

[8] Kaiser Company. “Interior: Denver Ave. Housing Project.” 3 November 1942. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Vanport: 1942-1943. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.

[9] Geiling, Natasha. “How Oregon’s Second Largest City Vanished in a Day.” Smithsonian Magazine, 18 February 2015. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/vanport-oregon-how-countrys-largest-housing-project-vanished-day-180954040/.

[10] Kaiser Company. “Parking Area and a Unit: Denver Ave. Housing Project.” 9 February 1943. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Vanport: 1942-1943. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.

 [11] Ibid.

[12] Weimer, Opal. “Case History: Families in Vanport.” Unpublished manuscript. 7 July 1943.

[13] “Vanport City Schools Weekly Staff Bulletin.”

[14] Kaiser Company. “School: Denver Ave. Housing Project.” 17 February 1943. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Vanport: 1942-1943. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.

[15] Weimer, Opal. “The Pioneers of 1943.” Unpublished manuscript.

[16] Weimer, Opal. Letter to James Hamilton. 9 November 1943.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Hamilton, James. Letter to Opal Weimer. May 1943.

[19] Weimer, Opal. Letter to William Fostvedt. 7 July 1943.

[20] Weimer-Tice wedding portrait. 30 July, 1943. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Photos of Opal. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.

[21] Weimer, Opal. Letter to James Hamilton. 1 November 1943.

[22] Hamilton, James. Letter to Opal Weimer. 14 April 1945.

[23] Heintz, Chuck. Faculty communication. “Clothes Still Needed.”

[24] Odegard, Peter H. Letter. 5 June 1948.

[25] Geiling.

[26] “Educator Succumbs.” Oregon Journal, 2 June 1958, pp. 5.

 [27] Ibid.

[28] Vanport Commemoration, S. Res. 21, 79th Cong. (2017).

[29] Weimer in Chicago, preparing for a Girl Scout outing. 1953. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Photos of Opal. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.

[30] “Day is Done… God is Nigh: Farewell Opal.” Lodestar: Santa Clara County Girl Scout Council Newsletter, October 1978.

[31] Death Record for Opal Weimer Tice, 20 September 1978, File No. 129-1210, Virginia Department of Health. Certified copy in possession of Reed College Archives.

[32] Opal and Fred Tice in their garden. Opal Weimer Tice papers. TiceO, Box 16, Photos of Opal. Reed College Special Collections and Archives, Portland OR.