Illustration of Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Diane DiPrima, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Ten, 12 years ago I was talking to some small-press jerk, a publisher of pamphlets and broadsides and occasional 40-page books and such, who didn't much care for the Beats. His idea of a Real Poet was somebody like James Merrill. Artaud to him was Not a poet, and Wallace Stevens was vastly preferable to Ezra Pound, who in turn was preferable to William Carlos Williams. His bottom line on Beats was they had nothing much to offer beyond the ambiguous (libertine) gushings and spoutings of any other Bohemian lit cult, and his only interest in 'em — historically— was that much of their early work saw its first light of print in venues much like his, though his own whimsical notion of publishing destiny was more on the order of being absorbed someday as an imprint of Knopf than spreading/thriving mushroom -like. City Lights-like, on its own enduring compost patch of back-catalogue populism.
Illustration of William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, John Clellon Holmes, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and Herbert Huncke
Anyway, were talking, and he's asking me, challenging me, to come up with one example of something (anything!): a single bookwrit perception by a Beat living or dead that a non-Beat of equivalent mettle would've found impossible — or at least difficult — to come by. So I think for a sec and I mention this scene late in The Dharma Bums, which I was reading at the time, where Jack Kerouac, backpack-weary on a strange dark street in Eisenhower frontlawn suburbia, flashes on how dogs bark at pedestrian footfalls but not hissing, squealing automobile tires — how maddening — and he, the jerk, says, “Okay, that's something.” Gee, that was easy. (Where even I didn't think — and don't think — that was v. much in the way of an actual New Offering.)
Went to this party back in high school, few weeks after the '60 elections, an idiot teen “beatnik party, ” my first, though they d been having such events for at least a couple years by then. Sweatshirts, berets, sunglasses. Drawn-on goatees. Rock Sc roll of the moment. No jazz. (No reefer.) Bongos notwithstanding,'after an hour I was feeling kind of down, y'know?, 'cause it seemed to me even then that beatnik meant something, man, something more than a room full of bullshit, something on the order of, well — dig it — Kennedy. Or something.
This guy I know who makes low-budget horror films is always trying to make a case for Maynard G. Krebs as a beatnik, a real beatnik, to which I tell him: Maynard G. Krebs was a ROLE played on the Dobie Gillis show by Bob Denver, the basic thrust of which was I-hate-work/what-can-I-pretend-this-week-is-totally-absurd-enough-to-call-groovy. If you wanna go so far as to declare such shtick (qua shtick) beat, you might as well call the Fonz (even Springsteen) punk-rock. You can, but what's the payoff? Thin it out that much, why bother?
If you're gonna have parodies, I'd sooner accept insider parodies like Ed Sanders. Or second-raters who seem no deeper than Maynard, and maybe even are, but at least are so ingenuously, like Jack Micheline or Carl Solomon. And beats as hipsters: what hipsters? You could get by — and tell no lie — describing them all as a bunch of squares. Hip is but one of the myriad parameters of experience — vectors on being — beats embraced. Kerouac may get off on Lester Young in On the Road, but he also does a number on Beethoven's Fidelio.
Inclusive vs. exclusive: that they— the originals — were wildly inclusive re sources of input doesn't mean you should include (as fellow travelers) every heavy-outlined cartoon, every cardboard-mounted EXPLOITATION that came down the pike. Even “endearing” (and enduring) ones like Maynard.
Still, there’s occasionally something not wholly unappealing about the cliché qua litrachoor. Which is to say (for inst) that Beatnik Poetry Contests can have their charm, are in any event not always thoroughly loathsome. Where a Pre-Raphaelite Poetry Contest (or Hemingway Parodython) would be inconceivable in any remotely similar context — among the real-time make-your-own-fun crowd, let’s say— Beat is (perhaps) the most recognizable of literary affiliations, the most tip-of-tongue topical, the most (even if ironically/sarcastically) “enjoyable” qua text — groovable — and (within limits) imitatable— by a total outsider (literary neophyte) (functional illiterate). Which means what — beatnik art is “democratic”? “Double-open”? “Trans-cultural”? Don’t ask me. I’m still fishing. In grocery-listing what Beat might possibly be “about,” it would be too easy to push buttons that are ultimately Hippie, which I really can’t see it as precursor of — the precursor of — nohow. I mean it is/isn’t, but mostly — and most crucially — it is not, any more than Elvis, is the Grateful Dead — and I don’t even mean in a “generational,” decade-referenced “Zeitgeist” type of way. Hippie, if you wanna play such cards, was simultaneously the more and the less concrete Actual World version of certain prominent/ superficial (genuine/imagined) aspects of Beat Writ Large. Had more to do with rock and roll, and different drugs (differently defined drugs), anyway. In my dumb retrospect, it’s more like the substance and tenor of Beat “skipped a generation.” Beat seems much more like, has much more at heart to do with. Punk (hey: it wasn’t hedonism, it wasn’t flowers, it was more, y’know, beat). It’s also arguable that those Beats who played a participatory tole in early Hippie (with the exception of Neal Cassady, who was just digging it— while fucking and chaufifering it — and Sanders, who was young enough to have his own band), e.g., Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, were simply SEDUCED by its paradise-now easy ride (not to mention the elder-statesman preeminence it for ten minutes afforded them — before casting them in the over-30 geezer slag heap with everybody else), but this seduction had no more basis in Universal Oompah than kids voting for McGovern over Nixon (f’rinstance), like why the hell not?
Reading Beat literature calms (soothes) me the way Buddhism — or let’s say Buddhist literature — or even Walt Whitman — can’t (or doesn’t). Or maybe I don’t let it, but I let Beat. Soothes me the way watching the rain can. Or a cat washing himself.
Okay — first stab — what separates the beats from other “writing scenes” is its undivided insistence: Let’s get naked (for five minutes) and tell the truth (let’s at least try, okay?)...and this at a Time, a Place, when/where, said Ginsberg, “the suppression of contemplative humanity [was] nearly complete.” Which is not even to say, hmm, Let’s get honest — if we’re really naked, the truth’ll just fucking ooze out, can’t help but ooze out: writing as emanation of a writer’s bucknaked soul (speaking by turns loud/soft/thudding/ purring/silent), not even an art-on-a-pedestal “transcription” of suchstuff: real lifebloody real mammal sweat, real sweet-dream vapor.
(Which eliminates John Updike.)
The roster. Since there is no such thing as Beat Style — it’s a wild pluralism that escapes simple taxonomy — Kerouac made books on the forge of first-draft automatic writing; William Burroughs purloined (and cut up) pre-existent texts; Snyder was influenced by haikus and Robinson Jeffers; Philip Whalen has acknowledged his debt to Gertrude Stein, of all people — Beat Writing is best approached as no more, no less than writing by any and all Beats. To qualify as a Beat, for this piece anyway, it’s enough to be a friend (at the very least: friend of a friend) of a Beat, specifically of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs...some finite interpersonal extension of one or more of these three. Don’t mean to sound fatuous, or again beg the question, but friendship, and the (lingering, intertwining) friendships between/among the writers involved, are the very content — the meat — of much of their poetry and prose; all the references and homages to each other, down even to the merest namedrop, seem more heartfelt (and necessary) than traditional writerly protocol would require; their literary interplay (the crossfeeding, the trial-and-error, the shared open lab environment) is vital and immense; the projected (still ongoing) sense of “literary community” is perhaps more authentic (for its size) than any there has ever otherwise been.
But of course (thankgod) it’s a 360-degree deal: love, hate, and indifference make the whole thing (for want of a better expression) existentially real to the shorthairs. Looking for a little betrayal? Check out five pages from the end of On the Road, where Dean Moriarty (Neal) leaves Sal Paradise (Jack) fevered and delirious in Mexico City...and five pages later Jack toasts him as a grand wink of the planetary Night.
If for no other reason than that he was basically a loner (though you could certainly come up with plenty of others), Charles Bukowski was not Beat: no!
Apropos of nothing (and everything), in multifarious non-frivolous ways, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs are to Beat what Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk were to Bebop. Parker and Kerouac: universe-blazers, stripminers of personal pneuma, and easily the finest (most consistently exciting) soloists. Ginsberg/Gillespie: the behavioral flamboyance, the scene-manifesting definition- starts-here show-and-tell, scene-steering sometimes to the point of trivialization, of bric-a-brac horseshit on dotted lines as hokey as any their respective scenes were born to kill — but still, much work of seminal muscle and technical brilliance. Burroughs and Monk: the odd men out, stylistically and attitudinally different enough to be “not really beat,” “not really bop” (just majorly, transcendently significant and “of the time”), reassessors, dynamiters of prevailing form (and challengers of audience forbearance).
Okay, some beat books I’ve read...The standard line on Kerouac, a line, common enough, is On the Road is his masterpiece while its mandated sequel, Dharma Bums, is simply not in its class. I see it a little different. On the Road, good as it is, is far from Jack’s high water mark, no better than his fifth or sixth best, and Bums isn’t far behind. There are even days when I’ll reverse the pecking order. It’s mainly a question of whether you wanna read about Neal (Cody Pomeray) or Snyder (Japhy Ryder), or about the late ’40s Jack as opposed to the mid-’50s installment. The prose in Bums is maybe a little more bite-size, less willfully rambling and nutty, but the basic fictional premise -— the film of my life, take it or leave it — is identical.
His actual bloody masterpiece, and one of the great, great works of the English language, is Big Sur. The great first-person now-I-begin-to-die novel, it documents a few weeks of horror as Jack was pushing 40 at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin overlooking the Pacific, where LF had convinced him he could dry out (he’d been drinking heavily for years) and write nature poems and whatnot and never have to drink again. He does nature and poems for a couple weeks, hitches back (or tries to — a failure so traumatic he would never hitch again) to San Francisco, meets and greets old faces, new faces, and puts a down payment on his terminal drunk. In the course of things, he yells “Fuck you” at a Michael McClure only asking for (as promised) the address of Jack’s editor, has his last civil encounter with Neal, during which he is “given” the last in a long string of women Neal would for various reasons dump on him (he falls for her, unfalls for her, then tries to stir up trouble between her and Mrs. Neal, his own erstwhile slumbermate Carolyn), wakes up drunk in a park with the saintly Philip Whalen watching over him (last documented instance of a saint doing such for him), steps all over the generosity of Lew Welch and Lenore Kandel — friendships stretched to their limit — snap — as much an explanation for why he then/there began to officially pack it in as any. Finally, sick from all the cheap swill he’s been drinking, he returns to the cabin for the third or fourth time, d.t.’s rampant, to hallucinate Neal’s woman’s kid as the (literal) devil — after which he sucked it up,-went home to mom and sat down and wrote it, raking himself over coals even he (the self-loathe champ) had never dreamed of, and seven years later he was dead (so it took awhile).
A notch down is The Subterraneans. Written in three days on speed in the fall of’53, it’s as good as it gets for a three-day novel — or a lost-love-tearing-my-guts-out novel of any gestation. Of all the early to mid film-of-my-life works (“The Duluoz Legend”), as hot a read as most of it tends to be, only The Subterraneans stands out as an ur-expression of topical etcetera — the tale/told as Screaming Literature — and it isn’t really until Big Sur (‘61) and Vanity of Duluoz (’67) that he manages to come up with a Different Kinds of Statement, a breakaway then another to the Other Side of Writing, a pair of fully focused New Ways of telling tales at all — above and beyond the fact of write-ing them — and this at a time when the overall level of his writing—qua writing — was at its peak, its zenith, never better, never stronger — am I lost yet? — talking ’bout the life and times of The Subterraneans...or some such. Anyway: the story of Jack and Mardou — a black woman, played in the film version by Leslie Caron (!) — who eventually fucks Gregory Corso (not in film). George Peppard played Jack, everybody lives hap ever aft at film’s end — and real-life Jack had yet another alibi for drinking till his esophagus hemorrhaged.
Vanity of Duluoz is the sleeper, last one to come out while he was still alive, some bios even label it lousy, or pass over it as the feeble output of a dying man, but it’s one of his very best. In form, it’s kind of I’ve-got-this-to-say-and-that-to-say (listen good or walk out — but you’ll miss some surprises) — a cross between Ring Lardner and Thucydides? No more Buddhist humility (and a few quarts down from his normal quota of “compassion”), it’s a take-off-the-gloves affair, not too kind to Ginsberg (or even Burroughs for that matter). Covers a lot of autobio space/time not touched on elsewhere, for ex., Jack, football star (with rude comments ’bout his college coach, Lou Little); his buddy Lutien Carr’s stabbing of Dave Kammerer.
A couple of shorties, Tristessa and Visions of Gerard, 100 and 150 pages, respectively, also deserve wider recognition. The former, consisting of two time-separated takes on the march to the Abyss of a heroin-addicted Mexican prostitute, is possibly his best single-subject hunk of prose writing. The latter, a meditation on the death of his older brother from rheumatic fever (Jack was four at the time), presents the author in a windy world of pain and incomprehensible grownup protocols, and contains probably his longest third-person run, a multi-page fantasy about his father and his poker buddies.
Pull My Daisy is the script from the film of the same name — Jack’s voice-over, improvised in two sessions while he watched the visuals — camera follows a roach to a piece of cheese, it’s a “cheese roach.”
Maggie Cassidy, story of a high school romance, goes on and on, a not-unbearable melodrama — ’bout him not getting laid — until the last two chapters, which end it like a Faulkner (years pass, home from the wars, he tries to get off her panty girdle — change of narrative voice— no go): not bad. Also: we learn that he did in fact drive alone (or says he did) (only evidence in any of the books), working nights at a garage in hometown Lowell, Mass.
Lonesome Traveler is a collection of odds and ends with a travel tie-in, many of which had been published in Holiday and Escapade and whatnot, and most of which could’ve been recycled into early to mid novels, as inserts or whatever, but weren’t (or cover turf previously covered anyway). “The Railroad Earth” and “Piers of the Homeless Night” are pretty good. In “New York Scenes” he mentions Robert De Niro’s artist father.
Even Dr. Sax and Pic ain’t half bad if you read ’em with Jack’s reading voice in mind, for which the Rhino three-CD set. The Jack Kerouac Collection, is (in spite of its glitzy gosh-oh-gee booklet) invaluable. Sax, the only one of his novels written entirely (or close) on marijuana, doesn’t really make it as, in Jack’s words, “the third part of Faust, ” or even as much of a childhood-is-so-scary roman a reefer, but it has its moments. The much-maligned Pic, a 20-year-old manuscript dusted off and fussed with (minimally) towards the end, though not soon enough to be issued before he was dead, doesn’t play at all if you read it as an African-American dialect joke—natch — but if you read it as Jack reading the joke...hey, there’s some real warmth and tenderness there (believe it).
Then there are the clunkers. Only thing worth a damn about Book of Dreams, the sole Kerouac published by City Lights during Jack’s lifetime (they passed on On the Road), is the cover shot of Jack sleeping...tells you something about Ferlinghetti’s taste. Mexico City Blues, consisting of “242 choruses” — y’know, jazz — has a couple-few good things, or let’s call ’em interesting, in most cases they’re about death (24, 57, 184), but mainly it’s just page after page of lesser (much lesser) “beat poetry” — his best poetry (and he was the best Poet of the whole dang bunch) is in his prose. In Satori in Paris, about an aborted ’60s trip to find his family’s trail in dusty French archives (mostly he gets drunk and decides to chuck it), he isn’t sure himself that anything especially eye-opening (satori: “kick in the eye”) actually happened. Desolation Angels, which covers the period from the end or so of Dharma Bums to the release of On the Road, should’ve been a good’un but it’s really the shits. At one point, en route to California with his mother (Memere) — the light of his life, bane of his being, and only woman he ever took on the road — he comments that if you can’t dig it, “tell it to Mao.” Even guest appearances by Lafcadio Orlovsky — Peter’s brother — and Alan Watts don’t ultimately redeem things.
Call me a heretic, call my mom a whore, but I find Visions of Cody, his “nonlinear” Cassady book, largely unreadable, and not just because every edition I’ve seen has had a miniscule typeface. Opening with a shitload of viable, but increasingly monotonous, unconnected “sketches” (lonely ladies in the rain...a pork chop in Hartford ’41...following Lee Konitz into a music store), it slowly but surely reveals itself as a top-heavy (bottom-heavy) (all-heavy) 400 pages without much payoff — Moby Dick without an Ahab to take everybody to hell. Even Jack’s voice, his and Neal’s combined, can’t save it, and what Ginsberg, McClure et al. rave about is (I’m guessing) what they’d like to IMAGINE it is (it isn’t!)...the kitchen sink, ma! (has lots o’ leaks). Verbatim transcripts of actual taped conversations between Neal and Jack — or alternating monologues — only serve to underscore the difference (and distance) between verbatim spoken and verbatim written. Jack’s stream of vocal consciousness was less interesting than his unedited stream of writerly etc. (or: his ear for recollected speech beats the hand as originally dealt), and Neal’s vocals here are less hot, less “on,” than the voice in his letters. Some of the black stuff even seems racist this time (racist as a non-ironic I’m-pure-so-I-can-use-the-word- nier, racist as this-is-America-and-I-can-say-what-I-want provocation). Occasional patches of good content, tho: Neal’s report on Burroughs in Texas; Jack talking ’bout meeting Lucien and Kammerer and Burroughs, getting blown by his first wife, quitting football ’cause he heard Beethoven’s Fifth one day just as it was time for practice.
Soon after Jack died, City Lights put out Scattered Poems—no great shakes. A little later, Heaven & Other Poems came out on Grey Fox — ditto.
Since his third (and final) wife kicked it, some more substantial new stuff has appeared. Pomes All Sizes, titled and intended for publication during his lifetimerhas more variety (and less self-consciousness) than Mexico City Blues, but still the best stuff is about death: “if I die the dying’s over — if I live the dying’s just begun.” Its first printing by City Lights didn’t have his name on the binding, the final revenge (one surmises) of Ferlinghetti for Jack’s having once called him a “genial businessman.” The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, a series of sutras encouraged by Snyder at the time of the action covered in Dharma Bums, is a better version of the Buddhist folderol in the opening section of Desolation Angels—less annoying, jus’ plain better. Old Angel Midnight, originally in Big Table mag, is the most entertaining of Jack’s attempts at a Finnegans Wake sort of “goofy language” spew. Good Blonde & Others is the best (so far) of the odds ’n’ ends collections. Title piece (from Playboy) is real good, “In the Ring” is a neat little whatsit on his father as wrestling promoter, and “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” and “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose” — classics long out of print in any form — are always nice to have around. And there’s this other one from 1990, one of those little ones from Hanuman Books, a bunch of fragments of interviews and stuff — if you missed it you’ll live — Safe in Heaven Dead.
(Oh, I’ve never read The Town and the City, his “pre-Beat,” traditionally linear, Thomas Wolfean novel. Tried, but I’ve never gotten very far. Third-person, kind of dreary, with Jack’s persona split among a bunch of brothers.)
The first full-fledged biography, Kerouac by Ann Charters (1973), contains an error conspicuous and major enough to make you doubt the veracity of the rest — the claim that Jack’s sister Nin killed herself. Turns out she died of a heart attack (corrected in later editions) — now how the hell’d she get that wrong?
Of the subsequent bios/memoirs, the standouts are Memory Babe, by Gerald Nicosia, and Jack's Book, by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee. The former, over 700 pages, has a lot of data not in any of the rest (details of 20 years’ worth of fall-down drunks, including one with painter Willem de Kooning; the numerous times he had sex with men, especially after he decided his dick was too small; a bad acid trip in Florida as late as ’69; phone calls to first wife Edie towards the end, allegedly asking her to get back with him; partial transcript of a tape made drunk with the radio playing, also towards the end, Jack singing along, improvising dirty lyrics, funnier and more revealing than any of the tapes in Visions of Cody) and more textual critique of Jack’s books than the others put together. Jack’s Book consists of the oral reminiscences of anybody living (’78) who’d had anything to do with Jack and was still willing to talk about it, which is more people than were willing to talk to Robt. Reisner while he was compiling Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker. The participants, quoted in bits ranging from a paragraph to several pages at a clip, are fascinating as much for their own strut as for whatever light they shed on, y’know, Jack. Highlights include: Neal’s first wife LuAnne on who was fucking who which week; Lenore Kandel on the external look and feel of Jack’s last crazy night at Big Sur; Gore Vidal claiming Ginsberg once told him that Mémêre had told him she suspected her husband, Jack’s father, was a “pansy” — something Allen himself denied ever hearing/telling.
Dennis McNally’s Desolate Angel contains a lot of material quoted or footnoted in the better-written (if shorter) Tom Clark bio, Jack Kerouac; he’s also got the most of anybody on Jack’s relationship with Dody Muller, like how Mémêre wouldn’t let her wash a dish without rewashing it herself, and once called her a “witch” for playing with candle wax. On Lucien’s girlfriend Celine Young, he has Jack “make out” with her (while Lucien is in jail and Jack is still married to Edie); Clark scoops him, if you wanna believe this stuff, by having Jack fuck her. Clark’s also got a great ending, maybe even the most appropriate of any of’em: for a guy so obsessed with death, so hungry for being done with life, Jack sure didn’t seem to enjoy his own dying (certainly not like, say, Jim Morrison).
While some people I know consider Minor Characters, by Jack’s one-time gal Joyce Johnson (nee Classman), a sour-grapes insider-becomes-outsider book, I see it as a pretty dispassionate examination of Jack, the beats and how they treated women (like shit). It’s also got the best theory yet on the origin of the Jack- Mémêre relationship (Mémêre taking him into her bed— clinging to him — following the death of Gerard), an analysis of Jack’s weltzschmerz as not-too-subliminal mom-hate, and some of the most detailed depictions of his continuing (late ’50s) friendship with Lucien.
Oddest Jack book is probably Visions of Kerouac, an inadvertent piece of kitsch by Charles Jarvis, ostensibly an account of our boy’s final stand in Lowell. A dazzlingly obtuse professor (or something) at the U. of Lowell, Jarvis drank with him in this town, which a decade after the publication of On the Road didn’t even know him, constantly asking stupid questions for which Jack always had a drunken answer. A poignant scene: returning to Lowell H.S., sight of old football glories, where nobody even remembers him for that. Very scary photos of an unkempt red-faced Scowling Jack in rooms full of suited smiling cardboard locals.
Worst of the lot is Quest for Kerouac, by a glib Brit named Chris Challis — basically just a groupie-grope for Jack and other living/dead celebrities, for ongoing manifestations of their celebrated aura, not even much of a celebration of their Being. Barry Gifford’s Kerouac’s Town takes on the same chore — visiting the haunts — with a good deal more affection and dignity. Actually visits — is allowed in the house — by widow Stella (while Mémêre is still alive — another room — he don’t get to see her), who complains about the Charters bio, tries to refute the story of Mémêre slamming the door in Ginsberg’s face (she only refused to let him in, then called the cops as he sat outside in the car).
Victor-Lévy Beaulieu’s Jack Kerouac: A Chicken-Essay, possibly the earliest book-length treatise solely on Jack (1972), has its share of insights (On the Road as the first certification of San Francisco as geo-center of coming revolution; Big Sur and Jack’s ID. as French-Canadian, not — for once — Franco-American; Kerouac as the politico-revolutionary equal of Ginsberg and Burroughs). Jack spoke nothing but French until he was six, by the way, and somebody makes a case — I think it’s Clark but I can’t find the reference — that just as it was for Joseph Conrad, English was Jack’s second language, therefore... whatever.
King of the Beatniks, a play by Arthur Knight in which Jack and Neal hang out one more time, 11 years after Neal’s death, 9 after Jack’s, and which repeats the canard of Jack’s sister killing herself (published 12 years after the corrected Charters text), is absolute dog food.
In Kerouac West Coast, John Montgomery, who’d been one of Jack and Snyder’s mountain-climb partners in Dharma Bums, also repeats the canard, but only two years after.
Although Ginsberg’s total page count as a published poet is probably less than the total for a couple-three Kerouacs — heck, the bulk of his poems can be found in three currently available books, Collected Poems 1947-1980; White Shroud, and Cosmopolitan Greetings — I’ve probably only read about half of’em — who except students reads entire books of poems?
The stuff that’s great is great (“Howl,” “Kaddish,” “A Supermarket in California,” “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear,” “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” “Please Master,” “On Neruda’s Death,” “White Shroud,” “First Party at Ken Kesey’s with Hell’s Angels,” “Don’t Grow Old,” etc., etc.), appearances by Jack, Neal, Bill, and the rest of the gang are always fun (“Two Sonnets After Reading Kerouac’s Manuscript The Town and the City, ” “On Neal’s Ashes,” “On Burroughs’s Work,” “Gregory Corso’s Story,” “G.S. [Gary Snyder] Reading Poesy at Princeton”), and the rest of it, at least starting from the time of “Howl” (1955), I certainly could read if you gave me a couple months (which is something I could never do with James Merrill) — I mean he changed the face of poetry-as-dealt as decisively as anybody ever has — right? — but I still have to say even the great stuff is sometimes a little...um...clunky. For images he’s ace, metaphor mountains, tops, his momentum module, ditto— forward, go — poetry as the conscience of man up the old wazoo, self-consciousness as NO SIN (now and forever), but when you read (in Composed on the Tongue, for inst) this biz about how “Howl” was modeled rhythmically on “Lester Leaps In” (Lester Young) you gotta wonder what kind of ear he has: duh duh dah dah, dah duh-da dah duh DAH dah — now where in “Howl” is that? (He doesn’t have Jack’s ear.) Perhaps I quibble.
Anyway, he’s 68 now, and his recent publishings are still, well, satisfying. In new ways, cumulative ways, final ways, even. “Improvisation in Beijing” (a once and for all why-I-fucking-write- motherfucker), “May Days 1988” (after all these years, claiming death — at last — for himself), “Sphincter” (the decline and fall of his physical asshole), “Salutations to Fernando Pessoa” (anti-humble? pseudo-anti-humble? pseudo-pseudo-anti-humble? The Vanity of Ginsberg?): good’uns.
And then there’s that coffee table beast: Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript & Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts & Bibliography—actual title, not subtitle. Umpteen tons of archival impressiveness, singlespaced and double-spaced typescripts, Allen leading you through time-coded crawlpaths of creation, a selection of verse he feels like designating the Roots (Christopher Smart, Shelley, Apollinaire, Mayakovsky, Kurt Schwitters, Artaud, Lorca, Wm. Carlos Wms., Hart Crane), a complete “Howl” bibliography (24 languages), an interesting (all-too-typical) all-but-nothing ’86 statement by Carl Solomon (full original title: “Howl for Carl Solomon”) plus his complete bibliography (two books), nice paper, nice photos — but’s
all a little precious, n’est-ce pas? Cover price, $22.50 — original price on City Lights was like what, less than a buck? As Jake LaMotta says of an overcooked steak in Raging Bull, an endeavor like this kinda defeats its own purpose. (The purpose of “Howl”!!) (Did he say porpoise?)
In any event, since there are so many available formats of bookbound Ginsberg text, it might be more useful — enjoyable — whatever — to read around...start with the poems, natch, but then move on to the interviews, notebooks, letters, lecture transcripts, captioned photos — back & around.
In Composed on the Tongue he talks about such arcana as Kerouac’s brief (’40-’41) flirtation with Marxist — who’d’ve thunk it? -— and Burroughs’s mockout of the ’48 election campaign. Straight Heart's Delight has a series of (typed in progress, typos and misspellings left alone) “sex experiments” involving Allen and Peter Orlovsky (“I continue jerking him off, his cock has a slight bend”). In Gay Sunshine Interview he discusses the “Matterhorns of cock, Grand Canyons of asshole” line from “Kaddish.” Allen Verbatim contains the presentation of his research to the Institute for Policy Studies on the CIA’s involvement in the heroin trade (1971 — before too many people were onto that one); his response, on a live college radio show, upon hearing of the death of Ezra Pound. The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg has a long section of him recalling (for author Paul Portugues) the specific drugs he took during the writing of such and such major poems (lot more morphine than might be assumed) (also, he was real spooked by acid — felt obligated to keep taking it for the higher sake of Evolving Consciousness); in the section-on Tibetan Buddhism, he advances an argument re Hubert Humphrey and Vietnam that sounds incredible coming from anyone but a card-carrying Democrat (hindsight and aging can do that). In The Visions of the Great Rememberer, restored to its full length as preface to the most recent edition of Visions of Cody, he wonders whether Kerouac was right when he accused Allen of stealing from him — verse — and decides yes, all these years later, .. Jack was right after all. As Ever is the collected correspondence of Allen and Cassady—amazing how much of this stuff was preserved (towards the end Neal is incoherent, but in the early days he more than holds his own). Journals Early Fifties Early Sixties lists all the books he read (or intended to read) in January, June, and July of ’54 (inch Winesburg, Ohio and selections by Kant). Indian Journals has gruesome beggar photos. Photographs has the full Burroughs-Kerouac couch shot cropped for the cover of Viking’s Beat Reader; one of Neal and Natalie Jackson under a hyping pushing The Wild One; a two-page spread of the life-beaten Orlovsky clan; arid a very scary pic of Jack in ’64 “shuddering in mortal horror, grimacing on D.M.T.” (giving it to his dear buddy at that point — the half-hour concentrated version of LSD — had to be the meanest thing Allen ever did) (or did and documented).
There are two recent Ginsberg bios, Ginsberg, by Barry Miles and Dharma Lion by Michael Schumacher, and sort of a third from the late ’60s, Allen Ginsberg in America by Jane Kramer, each okay for what it does best (the detailing of
an innaresting bloke’s life), but all suffer from the same problem — they eat his “image” whole, take his role as America’s Sartre (or something) as a fait accompli, and deal with him at too many stages of things as an undebunkable sacred cow. This is most bothersome when it comes to the Psychedelic Sixties. The assertion in all three, for example, that their subject was a beacon in the night for spiritually starving contempo youth, that he indeed served as an actual — not metaphoric, not imagined — leader, y’know, “guru,” for masses of folks under 25 or 27 or 29, is just flat-out absurd — like the kind of dumb take on things you might get from TV news. To wit: they picture him prodding/coaxing numerous groups, from Be-In dopers to Hell’s Angels, into joining him in assorted Eastern chants —wholeheartedly — from Hare Krishna to just plain Om.
As demographics go, I could be counted as a member of that age & culture group, and lemme tell ya we wasn’t starving nohow. Maybe Prague kids were in ’65, but us ‘Merican young’uns had enough Culture/Nurture of our own by ’66-’67 (y’know: rock und roll — its healthiest period ever), thanx. To even the more hip and booklearnéd among us, Allen was at most a reborn curiosity, as in “Hey, looks like Ginsberg’s shuffled himself back in,” and that largely because he seemed to covet the limelight, couldn’t long endure without it — seemed as forced an act as Tiny Tim, y’know? Even on a drug level — that he’d “been there” first — such hokum gave him no more cachet than it would’ve Huxley (had he not been three years dead). A couple things to bear in mind about young louts and their preferences through the late ’60s: (1) there really wasn’t all that much (maybe 6-7 percent) Eastern flavoring in the overall mix, honest, and the very notion of “guru” was almost instant self-parody, and (2) when anybody on stage at rock shows — celebrity or not — would try during a break to get a chant going, maybe a couple people would comply out of embarrassment, it happened, but many people would yell out, “Fuck you!”
(And now that I think of it, no: in spite of his “Punk Rock Your My Big Crybaby” poem, in spite of his record with the Clash, Ginsberg was not a beat who translated well into Punk.)
The biographers also fail to mention what an amazing NERD the young Allen was. Fail, that is, to underline it (’cause it’s certainly there). The biggest nerd ever to emerge as a major writer (which is COOL — don’t get me wrong)? One would think.
Howl of the Censor is the story of the San Francisco obscenity trial City Lights was put through for publishing and selling Howl and Other Poems. The complete trial transcript is not a bad read; the two bozos called as witnesses for the prosecution are good for a giggle.
Allen’s CD of “accompanied” readings produced by Hal Wilner, The Lion for Real, and Philip Glass’s operatic demolition of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” on Hydrogen Jukebox I wouldn’t wish on a doberman. There’s supposed to be a four-CD box of vintage readings and such out on Rhino — I haven’t heard it.
In terms of the “evolution of the novel” (y’know: that old warhorse), William Seward Burroughs is probably the most important figure since the heyday of Faulkner — certainly more than Kerouac (even if not “as good a writer”), who was more about the genesis of personal (old-fashioned) art. We’re talking “form” here, not “storytelling” — as a storyteller Bill’s voice is probably more old-fashioned than Jack’s. Anyway, historically more vital, more necessary, than Kerouac, but he doesn’t have a single work as start-to-finish words-on-a-page exemplary as, say, Big Sur or The Subterraneans—his import (again, even more than that of Kerouac, who thought about his long haul well in advance) is in his whole entire oeuvre: the whole mess (and it often is one).
For the sake of not-so-dumb analogy, just as Faulkner can be seen as the full extension/realization of some weighty implications of the mystery pulp (units of fictive text, from the sentence on up, as THEMSELVES existing in a state of mystery: a universal who said what, what did that mean, what the suffering hell is going on???), Burroughs is the extension (and “art” appropriation) of science fiction, specifically a dystopian sci-fi whose universe is one of menace, terror, and Control—viral, genetic, corporate, and otherwise. Operating from various “possible” — imaginable— space/time coordinates at which the conventions and rites of sequential, linear fiction have little or no sway, he has managed, from Naked Lunch on, to not just nibble at nonlinear, but to BE it. Before or after, what’s the difference? First person versus third? No functional, no useful distinction (so deploy them in the same paragraph). Dialogue vs. voice-neutral narrative: ditto. An aesthetic that shuns repetition? Repeat ad infinitum. All art, all language, representing Control, the Mission is to come up with a technology of de-control, to debunk the notion of the unitary “artist” (and his goddamn Mission). Voila: the cutup and fold-in (by which anyone can make or unmake literature, turn it into a document found in a bottle on Venus); the establishment of safe zones for “bad writing” (intentional, unintentional, readymade, synthetic, etc.: anything goes and it doesn’t have to play...at all!).
The individual novels, because there’s so much overlap (both style and content), are hard to separately rate or even separate...better to just chronologically group them. First you’ve got Junky (a.k.a. Junkie) and Queer, from the early ’50s — the linear novels. No cutups yet; “routines” run not as bald narratives but as framed realtime verbal performances by Burroughs’s stand-in character. Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express, from ’59 to ’64, constitute the first big serving of Black Meat (the ’66 revision of Soft Machine being my own favorite — densest with cutups — or maybe I remember wrong). The Wild Boys (great chapter: “The Frisco Kid” — material introduced, cut, shuffled, mixed, matched until he gets it right), Exterminator! (nice poem on p. 13: “Come and jack off... 1929”), and Port of Saints, ’71 to ’73, are more of same with some new faces and stylistic mixes. Cities of the Red Night (my favorite Burroughs of all—his longest—almost Dickensian in spots), The Place of Dead Roads (my vote for his worst—takes about 100 pages to get going— the most linear of the late ones), and The Western Lands (more anti-monotheistic than Ishmael Reed, with a very heavy ending: writer tries to write his way out of death, fails — if Big Sur is the great now-I-begin-to-die book, Western Lands is Burroughs’s now-I-am-dead book, with the entropy and detritus of his life as a writer: recycled lesser cutups; fewer new cutups — writing is something you do from within life, not apart from it — you get old, they’re too much present-tense bother), ’81 to ’87, are maybe the end of his novelistic road. (A road the EQUAL of Faulkner’s, or Beckett’s, after all is said and done.)
In addition to the above, there’s The Yage Letters, an “epistolary novel” (with some ten pages of participation by Ginsberg), the first part of which (“In Search of Yage”) dates from the time of Queer; and Interzone, a booksworth of very funny scraps (oh, did I forget to mention he’s funnier than any of your standard stand-up humorists — Twain, Lardner, Nabokov, etc.?) from the time Naked Lunch was being pieced together. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a collaborative novel co-writ with Kerouac somewhere in the ’40s, is supposed to still exist but has never been published.
Then come his shorties: Roosevelt After Inauguration (on abuses of political power; 79 edition has a section on Anita Bryant, Sen. Briggs and Proposition 6 — remember?), White Subway (works in progress, stillborn works, “experimental” leavings), Cobble Stone Gardens (the stink of childhood St. Louis remembered), The Last Words of Dutch Schultz (delirium as natural generatrix of nonlinearity), The Book of Breeething (on Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Tut tomb death curse—illustrated), Blade Runner, a Movie (from which the movie title was lifted, otherwise no resemblance), The Retreat Diaries (dream notes and such from two weeks without a typewriter on a Buddhist retreat not totally his idea — far superior to Kerouac’s Book of Dreams), Early Routines (inch the time he cut off the end of his finger), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (speech delivered to an Outer Space conference ’88: dreams not spaceships for exploring the sucker), Tornado Alley (“For John Dillinger — In hope he is still alive”), Painting & Guns (his own work in the former, recommendations on the latter), The Cat Inside (one of his finest efforts—believe it—best of all cat books — cats as The Other — declares his current mission their protection).
The Adding Machine — his grandfather invented it (true) — is an organized collection of essays/lectures, chock full of surprises (e.g., he loves the work of Scott Fitzgerald, hates Beckett). In “On Jack Kerouac,” he credits Jack with not only naming Naked Lunch (he also named “Howl,” by the by) but getting him to write at all. “Bugger the Queen” (same time frame as the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”) is an anti-monarchist delight.
The Job is a series of early-’70s interviews of Bill by Daniel Odier (“And what of money, ownership, property”?) with illustrative experiments and routines. The Third Mind, with Brion Gysin, actual father of the cutup, is an exegesis on such methods, but (disappointingly) not a textbook, not exactly much of a read. Victor Bockris’s With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker, which feels (ho hum) like a Burroughs issue of Interview, features pix with Patti Smith and Christopher Isherwood, texts of dinners with Susan Sontag (more venom on Beckett) and Debby Harry, drinks with Terry Southern.
William S. Burroughs At the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989 (ed. by Jennie Skerl and Robin Lydenberg) collects 30 years’ worth of reviews good/bad (none indifferent). Of special interest are those by John Ciardi (who too earnestly—and one-dimensionally—compares Naked Lunch to Swift and Dante, missing all of its humor), Mary McCarthy (Naked Lunch as the prototypical “stateless novel”), and Marshall McLuhan (who, at probably his least global-village benign, understands Burroughs better than he did TV: heroin as a means of making the body into “an environment that includes the universe”).
The Burroughs File contains “Burroughs in Tangier” by Paul Bowles and Alan Ansen’s “Whoever Can Pick Up a Frying Pan Owns Death,” an early (insider) summary of Bill’s life in letters and out, more in context here than in At the Front (it’s the second piece in both).
The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959 (ed. Oliver Harris) is a fantastically great 430 pages, spilling such shit as Bill’s will to become a writer (far earlier/stronger than generally presumed), his thoughts on cheap farm labor, his high level of paranoia as the publication of Naked Lunch approached, his indecision on how to market it (pro-heroin? anti? — back and forth). Most fascinating of all, perhaps, is a letter to Ginsberg following the latter’s announcement of intent to be reprogrammed as a heterosexual. Bill tells him he’s been “laying women for the past 15 years...better than nothing, like a tortilla is better than no food...but no matter how many tortillas...I still want a steak,” to which his wife Joan (four months before he would shoot her) has added in pencil, “About the 20th of the month, things get a bit tight and he lives on tortillas” (touché!). Hepcat parody on p. 121: “Get with those technicolor peyote kicks Daddy O and shoot me that solid address.”
Of the complete bios, Literary Outlaw by Ted Morgan (who’d previously biographed FDR and Churchill) is more than adequate; William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible by Ginsberg biographer Barry Miles, less. Interesting fact, only the first half of which is in the Miles book: Bill Was married to somebody else before Joan (to help her, a Euro-Jew, escape the Nazis), and at about the same time his uncle, Ivy Lee, was Hitler’s U.S. publicist (before which he’d given the Rockefellers a gameplan: shoot strikers if you must, but go down and get photographed shaking hands with the ones you don’t shoot).
On his CDs for Hal Wilner, Dead City Radio and Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales, Bill fares much better than did Ginsberg. The first has a reading of the Sermon on the Mount from the belly of the Beast, the heart of Control; on the second he directly (and tenderly) addresses one of his cats. Better is The Elvis of Letters, with Gus Van Sant. Best of all, Break Through in Grey Room (vintage sound pieces from the ’60s/’70s, with Gysin, Ian Sommerville, and others).
Paper Cloud/Thick Pages is 33 pages (plus cover) of paintings — full color — about five of them slighdy interesting, two of these because the paint is over pages from the “Waghdas” section of Cities of the Red Night.
Which is where I lobby for turning this into a two-part piece — it certainly has gone on a bit. Woe to me for ever thinking I could handle this briefly, and there’s still maybe 20-25 more to go. Beatniks.
“Hello, mr. editor...two?” No? Okay, I’ll have to condense, compress the rest, let me just swallow the cotton from a Benzedrex inhaler and try my best....
Cassady, Neal. Kerouac’s buddy and early muse; jester, asshole, conman for the ages. The first third of his only book, The First Third, is pretty damn good, the rest good enough. Only in his letters, tho, do you get that here/there/everywhere fevered discontinuity that became one of the staples of Jack’s “post-Wolfean” modus operandi. For bulk letters there’s As Ever (him to Ginsberg), Letters from Prison (mostly to Carolyn, who refused to put up the house to raise bail money) and some things to Jack in the Beat Reader (ed. Ann Charters).
The only Neal bio, The Holy Goof by William Plummer, is no big deal, very little if anything (pre-Ken Kesey) you don’t already know from basic beat sources. A short roman à clef by Kesey, “The Day After Superman Died” (in Demon Box) doesn’t go much deeper (and moves the date of his death off by a year, to the weekend of Woodstock — ouch). A Kesey mostly picture book, The Further Inquiry, transcribes some Neal monologues and has a flip-page sequence of Neal, shirtless, in ’60s motion. In On the Bus, Jerry Garcia has some nice things to say about Neal’s role in his, Jerry’s, decision to go with music (over commercial art). Charles Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man (excerpted in the Beat Reader) contains an account of a joy ride with Neal a week before he died. He also gets some copy in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which I won’t read, but you can. And of course there’s always On the Road and Visions of Cody.
Cassady, Carolyn. She plays it less coy and dumb in Heart Beat (partial source of the film of the same name, as reprehensible in its own right as the George Peppard Subterraneans), but in Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg she either doesn’t have a clue or is the biggest liar since Nixon. All this stuff that happened, that the world knows happened—even Nixon knows happened—she acts like she didn’t notice. An insider pretending to be an outsider, straighter than Pat Nixon. Sexist it may sound to say this, but say it I will: she had to be at least a third of the reason Neal never wrote dick except the letters, and while not the source of his assholeness, a contributing unmaker of its positive dimension — although fuck him, he had his share of complicity in it — for choosing her and (more or less) sticking around. The items included in Dear Carolyn, ten years’ worth of letters from Jack, throb with a generosity which, judging from her level of insight in Off the Road (none of her letters here), was well over her head, making you wonder what even Jack saw in her (no, it’s easy: good-looking broad; stable) (so fuck Jack, too).
Gregory Corso is the great Brat of beat (Elf, Imp). An innocent? A primitive? In The Beat Vision (ed. Arthur & Kit Knight) he calls himself “poor simple human bones,” gets in a fight with Gary Snyder (too “intellectual” for him), is the only one at a writers convention who doesn’t find “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed” irredeemably corny. In The Subterraneans, he’s the one whose sexact with Mardou precipitates the end for Jack. Has poems titled “God Is a Masturbator” (in Elegiac Feelings American) and “Don’t Shoot the Warthog” (Gasoline). “Columbia Poesy Reading—1975” (Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit) is a lively debate between Gregory’s capitally Muse and drug-of-choice heroin. In “Bomb” (The Happy Birthday of Death) he thumbs his nose, says (from the deathmire of the ’50s) what-me-fear-annihilation? (Anti-nuke demonstrators once threw shoes at him.)
Although basically an outsider (slumming? no, but just dropping in), John Clellon Holmes wrote the first beat novel published, Go (1952), which pissed Kerouac off (two reasons: jealousy — natch — his own teletype rolls were then dying on the vine; Holmes has his Kerouac character go to bed with the Holmes’s wife character, which never happened in life, as cover for Holmes’s own real-life infidelity), the first beat piece in the mainstream press (“This Is the Beat Generation,” New York Times ’52, reprinted in Nothing More to Declare), and the first beat think piece in the mainstream “lively arts” media (“Philosophy of the Beat Generation,” Esquire, Feb. ’58, a month before Jack’s piece of the same name, now in Good Blonde & Others; the Holmes piece also in Declare). The Times article is exactly the sort of two-sided/no-sided glibspeak you find in the Times now as then, but at least he acknowledges beat’s spiritual dimension. The Esquire thing goes out of its way to give credit where due (to Jack for coming up with the term “beat generation,” for defining it as religious to begin with). Go is simply an itchy, tired-of-the-whole-thing-before-it-even-happened neo-Dostoyevskian calisthenic that feels at best like a New York genre novel (the way What Makes Sammy Run is an L.A. novel) — where virtually all of Jack’s own writings completely transcend place. Best (and inadvertently silliest) image in the book (p. 306): “...where a few squalid bars forlornly gathered the discontented into gaudy islands of warmth and alcohol.” Although he and some biographers claim he and Jack remained “lifelong friends,” he only does a couple-few cameo turns in Jack’s earlier novels.
Herbert Huncke is the street hustler, junkie, and petty thief from whom Jack had gotten “beat” (w/out the generation). The character based on him in Go is a model of vile pus and scum with about a week to live. He’s now outlived its author (11 years his junior) by 6 years. In his amiable 1990 autobiography, Guilty of Everything, Huncke gets back at Burroughs (for overstating, in Junkie, how skinny Huncke’s neck seemed in its collar) by detailing how quaint and fastidious Bill had been about his v. first shot of morphine. Describes what a nervous wreck Ginsberg was behind bars — his “woebegone expression,” “saying Jewish prayers” — the time they got busted together for stolen goods in Allen’s apartment, and claims Edie divorced Jack because he “wasn’t too successful with her sexually.” His image of “awful red stone brick” (p. 46) is the polar opposite of Jack’s ubiquitous “redbrick America.” The Beat Reader has a couple of short Huncke prose pieces — very open, reader-friendly narratives.
Carl Solomon, who met Ginsberg in the loony bin Allen opted for in lieu of actual jail time (Solomon was in for more psychologically pressing reasons), was not only the dedicatee of “Howl” but, working for his publisher uncle, the man who got Junkie signed to Ace Books (he rejected the teletype-roll On the Road). In his two books of prose, Mishaps, Perhaps and More Mishaps (their innards scrambled and resequenced, possibly in toto — it’s hard to tell — in Emergency Messages, along with some new material including an interview that repudiates the oft-quoted shuck that he saw Artaud perform in Paris in ’47), he reads like a lumbering lummox—sorry—a lovable lummox. A typical wheeze: “The Story of Syphilitic Minnie — Vietnik Communist, F.B.I. Lesbian.” (Hey, he doesn’t cause cancer.)
Even more ingenuous is Peter Orlovsky, gentle soul love-mated to Ginsberg — for better and worse — from ’54 to, I dunno, somewhere in the ’80s...or maybe still. Though it’s conceivable that only at Allen’s behest did he ever write poem one (title: “Frist [sic] Poem”), his sole collection, far as may be knowed, Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs, is my single favorite object from the wide world of bookthings. Really bearable, uncorrected misspellings and all. “Lepers Cry” is reprinted in both Beat Reader and Beat Vision, but my own favorites are “Frist [sic] Woman Lay” (“3 times/ in the night in Paris — at her place”), “High on H,” and “Dick Tracy’s Yellow Hat.” (And who am I? I’m the reason we’re all still here...this is my beatnik party. On to California...)
Poets Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welch went to Reed College together, and when Jack, Allen, and the New York contingent hooked up with them (or the first two of’em, at first) and their loosely defined crowd in the mid-’50s Bay Area, whatever it was that Beat was was suddenly national.
Snyder I have trouble figuring out. The way I’ve always had him pegged is as a young smartypants nature poet who in 40 years still hasn’t taken it especially far—never an academic, but still not much danger in the verse. He raves about these Zen lunatic mountain men for a whole half-a-book (the “Cold Mountain” part of Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems), but he isn’t one himself. Even the young stuff is not-young. Never celebrates — revels in — his own wildness, except from the vantage point of many calm yrs’ separation (in “Cartagena,” also in Riprap, recalling whores of his late adolescence). In “Four Poems for Robin” (The Back Country) he waxes on about skin and heat and gal-nakedness, relinquished in pursuit of “what my karma demands” — that about says it all. “I Went into the Maverick Bar” (Turtle Island), an account of drinks and vibes in redneck New Mexico, is Kerouac without the joy, Ginsberg without the bite. “Sherry in July” (Left Out in the Rain) is the closest he comes to humor. If Kerouac hadn’t captured him externally (in Dharma Bums) at a moment of still-ebullient whippersnapperhood, how else would we know he was any fun at all?
But maybe this is a bum rap, ’cause actually there are a couple Gary poems I could see myself reading again — “The Bath” (Turtle Island), about bathing his son in the sauna, and “Painting the North San Juan School” (Axe Handles), which reads like Wm. Carlos Williams with but the eensiest jot of hey-this-is-poetry to make you forget it isn’t. And there’s certainly no denying the validity of everything he SAYS ABOUT THE PLANET in his eco-essays (“The Politics of Ethnopoetics” in The Old Ways, “Notes on Poetry as an Ecological Survival technique” in Earth House Hold, most everything in The Practice of the Wild). And give him some points for what he says about Bukowski in The Real Work: yes, Bukowski is a nature poet — “eating, drinking, farting. What could be more natural?” But none of his poems about Lew Welch (read on, reader) are good enough.
Reading Philip Whalen may not be as easy as falling off a log, but it’s close. The most appealing, the least axe-to-grind, of why-we-keep-on-keeping-on poets. From On Bear's Head, “Prose Take-Out, Portland 13:ix:58” — sun rises — fuck even mentioning it — last jerk awake, everyone else faded (memory of Kerouac, a non-fader, evoked) — inch left to the wine “& the cigarets few”...makes me wanna move to Portland. In “For Kai Snyder” — star of “The Bath” — from The Kindness of Strangers, he forgets how to do a somersault — shit — then remembers, does three (“Age 46 years 6 months 37 days”). Bukowski without hemorrhoids? From Decompressions, “The Madness of Saul”: “Everybody takes me too seriously. / Nobody believes anything I say.” Most rudely undersung of living poem-makers (true — but don’t take my word for it); currently (last time I looked) an actual bonafide Zen monk.
From Off the Wall, a great, uplifting (ah, fuck me) series of interviews, we learn he’s possibly the only beat writer who doesn’t type...peyote saved his life...non-topical poetry is revolutionary (and he means it with a HAMMER).
A novel from ’67, You Didn't Even Try — domestic push-pull and divorce — is nothing to write home about. The story of Lew Welch is, for my money, the most fascinating True Beatnik Tale, more than Jack and Memere, more than Bill, Joan, and William Tell, you name it. The long version, well not that long, it ends at age 44, is told parallel to that of the other major beat players in Aram Saroyan’s Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch & the Beat Generation, my pick for the best-written literary bio of anybody, ever. The short version: grandfather, a surgeon with an operation in the morning, doesn’t drink, drives BARRY GOLDWATER’S MOTHER (who does) home from a party, is killed in a collision (Mrs. G. unharmed); young Lew works writing ad copy, comes up with the line “RAID KILLS BUGS DEAD,” hates it, hates the life, drops out to join his Reed poet buddies in San Francisco, starves, takes other crummy jobs for which he hates himself, the compromises, drinks too much; two drives across the country with Jack, Lew at the wheel, a surrogate Neal, crucial figure the last gruesome night of Big Sur; time marches (still drinking), the adjustments too great, tries living alone in the wilds, squirrels maim his cat, fuggit, the pain, the pain, until finally: writes his greatest poem, “Song of the Turkey Buzzard” (his favorite beast), in which it is asked that no one grieve, that his remains be placed on a rock, hail sweet buzzard, he then disappears in the mountains with his revolver, never to be seen again, Snyder sends out a posse but they never find a trace, no one does (this was ’71), the theory being: hiked remote, shot and left himself to be entered into the food chain — quick — direct — et by his friends the buzzards, become non-metaphoric ONE WITH NATURE, one with nullity/etemity...whew.
“Buzzard” can be found in Ring of Bone: Collected Poems 1950-1971, along with such hotsos as “Wobbly Rock,” “Barbara/Van Gogh Poem,” “Brown Small Bird,” “Supermarket Song,” and “Not Yet 40, My Beard Is Already White.” Lew’s poems are all so consistently of his voice that to pick up any one is to hear him in it — as distinctive as a line, a phrase, a held note by the most recognizable jazzmen. And it all has his SMILE.
Evergreen Review # 17 has a prose fragment from The Man Who Played Himself, a third-person fictional send-up of hip, that reads something like Terry Southern, but it’s still got Lew’s smile.
Okay, now let’s sort the rest out and get this party over...
Bob Kaufman and John Wieners are the greatest of the non-scene beat poets, whatever that means — the social second unit? — people who didn’t spend scads of time with the frontrunners. They’re also two supreme sufferers, and Kaufman, in particular, swallowed more broken glass than all the others combined. His mastery of Amen-surrealist wordspew is evident in “Secondless” (in The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978): “MINUTE AGES OF TIMELESS TIME & CLOCKLESS CLOCKS, & COCKLESS COCK.” Only beat writer, poetry or prose, who pegged jazz really, totally right: “Bird with Painted Wings” (Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness). Wieners’s “A Poem for Cocksuckers” and “The Ages of Youth” (“And with great fear I inhabit the middle of the night”), from Selected Poems (Black Sparrow), are intense, to say the least. Kaufman’s “Ginsberg” (Solitudes) and Wieners’s “For Huncke” (Selected Poems, Grossman) are as great a pair of tributes as ANY any of these guys ever paid one another.
Diane DiPrima is good enough. She’ll do. The percentage of her poetry that’s pap is no worse than for your average superstar academic. She writes decent travel stuff (“Two from Gallup,” “Brief Wyoming Meditation,” “Ramada Inn, Denver”) and occasionally gets one off like “I hope / you go thru hell / tonite / beloved. / I hope / you choke to death / on lumps of stars,” in “More or Less Love Poems” (all in Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems). Her Memoirs of a Beatnik, the only beat exploitation novel by an insider— wait, no, there’s also Ed Sanders — is a nice functional hunk of smut. Towards the end she fucks Kerouac (verified in Desolate Angel).
LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), father of one of her kids, is beat’s only triple threat: passable fictioii, poetry, drama. The System of Dante's Hell is the finest novel by any beat other than Kerouac or Burroughs. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note is as good a first book of poems as you got in those days (1961). The Toilet is the best play I ever saw live (’64). Hettie Jones (nee Cohen), mother of two of his kids, is the author of the best beat spouse memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones (the “skinny” on DiPrima is pretty good).
Michael McClure is the second least interesting poet among the frontrunners. For such a gung-ho nature muhfuh (and unrepentant mammal) he tiptoes through the tulips a little, um, daintily, y’know? There's also something very Aryan about much of his shit — very “stags in the meadow” — or English Protestant church music-y. And these page-centered symmetrical repetition poems seem like ideal fodder for (perish the thought) computer fun and hilarity— but does he ever get the hilarity? Scratching the Beat Surface is a dry, dry, dry monograph — so straight, its surface so unbroken. “Peyote Poem” is okay, though, and Ghost Tantras has a great werewolf cover, and The Beard was the quintessential late-'60s smash-the-boundaries-of-stage-decorum theater event. (Mixed reviews for the prettyboy.)
His role as publisher/bookseller notwithstanding, as a writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti is the least interesting of the bigboys. He's such a square that hipsterism when he wears it (like in Coney Island of the Mind, which isn’t even his title, it’s Henry Miller's) seems ludicrous. Yet most of his square stuff doesn’t play either. Tyrannus Nix?—his putdown of Nixon — who cares? So many books, so many books, some of them even published by other companies. And two full-length bios (one of which doesn't give a vertical inch to LF's loan of his cabin to Kerouac) — why?
We're outa beer, outa wine....
Ted Joans is the poet (black) who said of his friend Jack, “I know a man who's neither white nor black/And his name is Jack Kerouac.” His ending to “God Blame America!!” (A Black Manifesto in Jazz Poetry and Prose) follows “America...FUCK YOU!” with “MAY I?” The direct (friendship) link between Kerouac and Charlie Parker.
In the introduction to Jack Micheline’s River of Red Wine, which Troubadour Press agreed to publish only if he could get “somebody famous” to write a prefatorial, an obliging Kerouac says, “I like the poetry of Jack Micheline. See?” and I don't mind it either. It's meant to be read, is easy to read, and in fact only when read — aloud does it seem like much. Title poem (1981) from Imaginary Conversation with Jack Kerouac opens with “Wacky Daky Doo,” moves on to “Yippie Yippie Loo,” finishes with “Long Live Harold Goldfinger!”
Of the five people who read at the historic Six Gallery whoozis, S.F., '55 — Ginsberg (unveiling “Howl”), Snyder, Whalen, McClure, Philip Lamantia—the one with the least currently in print under his own name is Lamantia, who didn't read his own verse that night anyway: nothing. (Listed in the City Lights catalogue, but I’ve never seen him even in the artso specialty stores.) Only five short things in the Beat Reader if that's still in print, all with a fair quota of self-conscious nuttiness. The image “reality sandwiches” (“Fud at Foster’s”) recurs as (is the source of?) the title of a subsequent Ginsberg City Lights collection.
Ray Bremser is a jailbird who willed himself into a poet, hooking up via mail with Ginsberg, Corso, LeRoi Jones while serving six yrs. for armed robbery. Beat Reader has something of his, “Funny Lotus Blues,” with a lot of parentheses and gratuitous variable indents, verse-critiquing Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney, and Thelonious Monk, image-dropping Tanu Tuva, pubic hair, and Nero Wolfe. Troia: Mexican Memoirs, an excerpt of which also appears in the Reader, is a conspicuously Kerouacian account by wife Bonnie (Brenda Frazer) of their flight (with baby Rachel) from the law, written while Ray was serving another five-year stretch. In Elias Wilentz and Fred McDarrah’s The Beat Scene (1960) there’s a great snap of him reading with shades on.
Tuli Kupferberg, the best mind of his generation to have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and lived (vaguely cameo’d in “Howl”), once asserted (in The War Against the Beats): “Listen Square—You may kill the Beatnik, but you will not kill the Beatnik in yourself.” In 1964 he and Ed Sanders (along with Ken Weaver) formed the Fugs, the bulk of whose greatest work has been reissued on two Fantasy CDs, The Fugs First Album and The Fugs Second Album. In the mid-'70s Sanders, responsible for the term “peacecreep,” put out a great country-western parody album, Sanders' Truckstop, with its unforgettable “Polaroid spread shot” refrain (“The Maple Court Trajedy”), but his principal calling is words-on-paper. “Elm-Fuck Poem” (“in to the oily crotch/ place dick”) and “The V.F.W. Crawling Contest” (Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century: Selected Poems, 1961-1985) are good samples of his poetic craft. Tales of Beatnik Glory starts pretty funny, but the kneejerk ha-ha of its prose is a little tough to sustain for 543 (revised edition) pages.
Says the cover blurb to Lenore Kandel’s second book, Word Alchemy, that bk. and her first, The Love Book, “openly celebrate sexual love” — you could say so. “Invocation for Maitreya”: “sweet cunt-mouth of world serpent Ouroboros girding the universe / as it takes in its own eternal cock.”
There’s a famous photo from North Beach of Ginsberg, McClure, and Bob Kaufman with Harold Norse and Jack Hirschman, so I guess you should include HN and JH Hirschman translated Artaud for City Lights (“Shit to the Spirit” is especially juicy). In 1986 I read with him in L.A., and he was so intense he actually drooled — very impressive. “The Halls of Academe” (Endless Threshold) is as vigorous and thoroughgoing a slam of said haunts as y'may ever encounter. Harold Norse's Beat Hotel is a first-rate cutup/ellipsis novel from his days at that Parisian hostelry, where he met Gysin and Burroughs. Good grim poem in Karma Circuit: “Another Form of Junk.” His Memoirs of a Bastard Angel spends less time on Beat than some might prefer, more on superstars he hath known (Tennessee Williams, Chester Kallman, Truman Capote).
Likewise, the black & white of David Meltzer with McClure, Lamantia, John Wieners, S.F. '58, argues strongly for his inclusion. (And the name is right.) From Bark, a Polemic: “Pass around pics of chicks in black patent-leather boots, pink bras, fucked by wolfhounds, German shepherds, St. Bernards. Motel-room camera gets it all” — I would certainly hope so.
Time to mop up.
Let's see. Aside from Beat Reader, Beat Scene, Beat Vision, let’s see what's left.
The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men (ed. Gene Feldman, Max Gartenberg) clearly doesn’t know what beat is —1958 — classifying Anatole Broyard and Chandler Brossard as beats along with Jack, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Solomon — pshaw. The Beats, Seymour Krim's 1960 beat-sploitation anthology, has lots more real stuff, but it also has pieces by Broyard and Brossard, along with Norman Mailer (and not even Mailer's dick-driven criticism — “The White Negro” is in both the above collection and Beat Reader— but excerpts from The Deer Park, prefaced by Krim’s comment that “Mailer is moving these days, carving out his own version of beat vision” — Mailer as beat!) and an early scuzz-out by that beat-bashing pigfucker Norman Podhoretz, “The Know-Nothing Bohemians.” Kerouac & Friends: A Beat Generation Album, edited/photographed by Fred McDarrah, has some terrific photos,' including Jack on drums (’58) and Hettie Jones w/ Joyce Glassman, but also some historic texts like Gilbert Milstein's New York Times review of On the Road, Dan Wakefield's and Howard Smith's write-ups of Jack at the Village Vanguard, A1 Aronowitz’s profile of Ginsberg for some skin mag, Diana Trilling's hysterical “motherly” account of Allen (her husband Lionel’s former student) reading at his alma mater, Columbia, and “Begone, Dull Beats,” Ralph Gleason’s report on how, ugh, tiresome the North Beach scene had become by the dawn of the sixties. John Tytell’s Naked Angels tells us nothing we don’t know or couldn’t otherwise find (or figure) out about Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs (e.g., Jack’s naturalism is “different” from that of Upton Sinclair or James Baldwin; Allen, like Wm. Blake, “is seeking to purge language of stultifying formalisms”). The new afterword to Bruce Cook’s recently reprinted ’71 throwaway, The Beat Generation: The Tumultuous ’50s Movement and Its Impact on Today, shows/tells how e-z he is to please: the cultural legacy of the Beats (long may it Wave!) is Richard Brautigan, Tom Robbins, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits...Maynard G. Krebs, anyone?
The New American Poetry (1960, ed. Donald Allen) contains a ton of items not in the Beat Reader. The revised edition, retitled The Postmoderns (’82, Allen w/ George F. Butterick), has a ton, but a different ton (notable deletions: Stuart Perkoff, Kirby Doyle). In Whitmans Wild Children, Neeli Cherkovski does in-depth treatments on ten poets who have taken “to the open road both spiritually and physically,” seven of them beats, including Bob Kaufman, John Wieners, and Harold Norse (spotlighting Norse’s poem “I’m Not a Man”: powerful ain’t the word), who rarely get such credit. In Ekbert Faas’s Towards a New American Poetics, the split is only two poets in six, and the two are Ginsberg (who it turns out didn’t really “study” Whitman until after “Howl”) and Snyder (amused the beats had to take so much shit for being crazed — while the Anne Sextons and John Berrymans are really out there).
In spite of wasting an entire CD on their catalogue staple Lenny Bruce (certainly not hurting for availability), Fantasy Records’ four-CD Howls, Raps & Roars is as sweeping, as delightful, a celebration of what it purports to document — “the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance”—as you’re gonna find in this life. Readings by everybody from Ginsberg to Whalen to Welch to Wieners and Lamantia — now you can tag voice and nuance to a wide swath of mere ink on paper. You can even hear/feel Peter Orlovsky’s abiding intelligence. McClure reading to a roaring lion at the S.F. Zoo has to be one of his (and poetry’s) great documented acts.
In comparison, the Rhino/Word Beat three-CD box, The Beat Generation, is a potpourri of bullcrap, a sicker heap of exploitation trash than any ’50s/’60s installment. Aside from an interview with Kerouac by Ben Hecht (which shows you exactly how shy and uncomfortable Jack could be), Burroughs reading a short Naked Lunch excerpt, and some material by Jack and Ginsberg available elsewhere, the vast majority of this set’s 48 cuts are either jazz qua time-capsule “sound bites” (Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Ventura) or self-conscious parodies/ripoffs of things in and around beat (“Kookie’s Mad Pad,” “Beatnik’s Wish” by Patsy Raye & the Beatniks, “Christopher Columbus Digs the Jive” by John Drew Barrymore, “No Pictures, Please” by ROD MCKUEN, two Tom Waits cuts). Projected “intentions” aside, what basically this IS is a bloodsuck of much that is holy, a celebration of beat as a silly, disposable JOKE (w/ soundtrack). Which is fine — hey — if you wanna document lame comedy, swell. You wanna throw in a couple of lame-o’s for laughs, okay. But if THIS is your ultimate sonic mega-document of BEAT, eat shit, daddy-o. (I really mean it.)
Speaking of jokes: Lawrence Lipton’s 300-page ’59 press release on the Venice Beats, The Holy Barbarians — a scream. Better, howev, you should first read Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California, John Arthur Maynard’s astonishing ’91 account of Lipton’s recruitment and stage direction of a handful of poets and fringe beach people into a scene modeled after New York’s and San Francisco’s, but oh, so much more advanced, see: sort of a Beat, The Next Generation (with Lipton as ringmaster/ad copyist). The poets — Stuart Perkoff, John Thomas, an imported (from Europe/N.Y.) Alexander Trocchi — get more meaningful play from Maynard than they ever got from Lipton. The complete text of Perkoff s response to Ginsberg’s nude L.A. reading of’56 (not in print anywhere else) is especially enlightening. Maynard’s take, tho, on Trocchi’s prose opus, Cain's Book, as principally a love song to heroin is so off the mark that you get to wondering whether he read the whole thing, and/or whether he’s also wrong about a lot of other stuff. Dunno.
John Thomas, by the way, is still alive and kicking. His 1990 Nevertheless is as fine a stack of single-page poesy as any I’ve seen in the last dozen years. Short verse that reads like short prose — but is more compact than prose — stronger — and more lucid.
All in the family: Jan Kerouac; Louis Ginsberg; Wm. Burroughs, Jr. Imagine a daughter of Jack opening a novel — her first — with an epigraph from a PAUL SIMON song — Baby Driver —if that don’t beat all. In “Now a Satellite” (Morning in Spring and Other Poems) Allen’s father rhymes “risen” and “prison,” “an ion” and “Orion.” Speed, Bill’s son’s first, is funny, grim as life itself, non-derivative of dad, no B.S., but with his next (and last), Kentucky Ham, he’s already out of things to say.
File under beat: Bob Dylan; Ann Waldman; San Diego’s own Lester Bangs. Dylan’s an easy choice, although the lyrics Ann Charters picked for Beat Reader (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ”) are more Woody Guthrie than Ginsberg-and-beyond (why not “Positively Fourth Street” and “Memphis Blues Again”?). His Tarantula, especially in the A. J. Weberman pirate edition, is everything you could want from a beat novel (cameo appearance by Ernest Tubb). Waldman I’ll accept although she’s the same age as I am, if only because everybody else accepts her (based mostly on her connection to Ginsberg at Naropa), and if you give me a minute I’ll find something to endorse...hmm...okay, “Queer Heart” (“Kiss pussy, Mother Country”) in Fast Speaking Woman. Lester is younger than me, much younger — the dead don’t age — but he ate all these guys for breakfast, along with the inhalers, and Big Sur is as good a blueprint, at least a cipher, for his death at 33, 34, whatever it was, as any you could offer. I thought “Women on Top: Ten Post-Lib Role Models for the Eighties” (in the posthumous Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung) was incredible — weirder and weirder misspellings while drinking Romilar — until I read Old Angel Midnight. Now I know what he was aiming for.
Don’t file (even if Charters did): Frank O’Hara. It don’t matter how good you are: y’can’t be a curator of the Museum of Modern Art and qualify as beatnik.