On all frequencies: An Irishman’s Diary on Claude Pélieu

The forgotten French member of the Beat Generation

Like so many members of the Beat Generation, Claude Pélieu used his creative work to help him understand the world around him. The experimental poet, translator, writer and collage artist also used it to rage against society and authority.

Pélieu was born outside Paris in December 1934. He went on to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and worked as an artist in the 1950s, exhibiting at galleries in the city.

He also worked in bookshops and mixed with a range of creative people – poets such as Jacques Prévert and artists such as Fernand Léger. In his art, Pélieu drew inspiration from the avant-garde surrealist artists Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp.

In August 1956, Pélieu was drafted into the French army to fight against nationalists in Algeria. This traumatic experience seems to have made him want to leave France.


He travelled to San Francisco in November 1963 and would spend almost the rest of his life living in the United States.

At the time, San Francisco was the epicentre of the Beat Generation. It was in San Francisco that Pélieu met the visionary poet and one of the founding fathers of the movement, Allen Ginsberg. Another one of the pioneers of the movement, Jack Kerouac, described the Beats as “a generation of crazy illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming. Serious, curious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way”.

After San Francisco, Pélieu settled in New York City and while there, he formed friendships with the writer William Burroughs and the singer-songwriter Patti Smith.

Burroughs had a big influence on the Frenchman, particularly in terms of the cut-up writing technique that Burroughs popularised in the early 1960s.

He told Nash that he was disappointed by Ireland, because it was too wet, too green or too flat

During the 1960s and 1970s, Pélieu produced a dozen books and edited several magazines. He also translated many of the Beat Generation into French, introducing this eclectic mix of writers and poets to a whole new audience. This included Ginsburg’s poetry and work by Burroughs.

Together with his second wife, Mary Beach, Pélieu also translated work by the poets Ed Sanders and Bob Kaufman into French. Pélieu then moved to upstate New York and focused on collages, which had been a part of his oeuvre since his childhood growing up in Nazi-occupied France.

Pélieu was not the only French connection to the Beat Generation. Many of the Beats were inspired by a range French modernist art and literature, from the films of Jean Cocteau and Marcel Carné, to the novels of Marcel Proust, Céline and Jean Genet. Allen Ginsberg was said to be particularly inspired by the works of Arthur Rimbaud.

Seemingly in search of the roots of Celtic civilisation, Pélieu came to Ireland in September 1962. It was a disaster from start to finish. Travelling with a friend, he hitchhiked through England and Wales before taking a boat from Fishguard to Dublin. His letters home to his then wife, Lula Nash, tell of his dislike of Dublin (too many drunks and priests) and his disdain for most of the rest of the country, where it seemed to rain all the time.

He told Nash that he was disappointed by Ireland, because it was too wet, too green or too flat.

He said that he preferred Brittany in northwest France, because the interior was more arid and varied.

In Galway, he saw poverty on every street corner.

The exhibition 'looks to offer an overview of the trajectory and diverse work of this renegade correspondent'

The one high point of the trip was a visit to Bloody Foreland in Co Donegal, which he described as “sublime”, as if it contained some sort of mystical or supernatural quality.

Pélieu and his friend ran out of cash and had to borrow some money for their hotel from the French consul in Galway and the French ambassador in Dublin. On Pélieu’s return to Paris, the French embassy in Dublin sent him a letter requesting reimbursement of the princely sum of £15 and 15 shillings or 217 new francs. It might not seem like a huge sum today, but was obviously a considerable amount then.

An exhibition celebrating Pélieu’s life and work is currently running in the Boole Library, University College Cork, until September 30th. Using archival material from the French National Library in Paris, it showcases both his writing and art work and introduces him to an audience that had probably never come across him before.

Exhibition curator James Horton said that “it looks to offer an overview of the trajectory and diverse work of this renegade correspondent, who left a unique legacy in the form of his strange and electrifying texts, collages and translations that crisscrossed the Atlantic like so many dispatches”.

Ginsberg once referred to Pélieu as “an ex-junky Frenchman refuged in New York, San Fran, London”.

I wonder what this countercultural refugee would make of all the attention that he and work are now receiving.