COLUMN ONE : The Beats Are Cool--and Hot : Once the consummate outsiders, literary rebels of the ‘50s are finding new life in the mainstream. Academia, TV, movies and Madison Avenue are spotlighting Kerouac, Ginsberg and others.
You chose your words from mouths of babes got lost in the wood.
Cool junk booting madmen, street minded girls in Harlem howling at night.
What a tear-stained shock of the world,
You’ve gone away without saying goodbye.
--From “Hey Jack Kerouac,” performed by the rock group 10,000 Maniacs
Allen Ginsberg wears khakis.
--An advertisement for The Gap
Dig it. The beats are back.
The novelists and poets of the Beat Generation, literary rebels who battled the alienation and conformity of the 1950s in their own jazz-inflected voice, are enjoying a revival.
“We’re still the only real rebellion,” beat poet and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 75, said in a recent interview.
This is not the first time the beats have resurfaced in mainstream culture. But this time, the phenomenon is deeper and wider. Beginning in the late 1980s, beat-era cultural references began popping up and have continued at an increasing pace.
Ironically, the beats--once the consummate outsiders--are being embraced by the same Establishment players that shunned and mocked them: academia, the publishing world and the mass media.
* Scorned for decades by literature professors as semiliterate barbarians, beat writers are being added to college curricula. New York University held a weeklong conference in May heralding the return of the beats and discussing their profound influence on modern art, poetry and prose. Six hundred people attended.
UC Berkeley is interested in obtaining Kerouac’s papers; Stanford is dickering for Ginsberg’s.
* Long considered too obscene, formless or rebellious for students, beat poetry is being collected into an anthology for high school students, “Beat and Beyond,” to be published by Henry Holt. “The beats were interested in protest, outrage and nonconformity and those are eternally the concerns of youth,” said anthology editor David Kherdian.
Other publishing houses are rushing to release beat works. All of Kerouac’s major novels are back in print. A number of documentary film projects are under way.
* Ginsberg, 68, whose 1955 poem “Howl” provoked a landmark obscenity trial, is drawing standing- room-only audiences this year with readings from his new book, “Cosmopolitan Greetings.” In June, he recited a poem from the pitcher’s mound at Candlestick Park before a San Francisco Giants game.
Booted out of Czechoslovakia as a subversive in 1965, he was treated as a conquering cultural hero when he toured the nascent democracies of Eastern Europe where beat works, no longer banned, are bestsellers.
* Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola is working on a script for a possible movie of Kerouac’s 1957 novel “On The Road,” the seminal work of the beat movement. Television, which stereotyped beats as bongo-beating clowns, has rediscovered the energy and youthful anger that underpins beat sensibility. An ambitious series for the upcoming season, “Rebel Highway,” set in the 1950s, has an “On The Road” flavor. In one episode of the TV series “Quantum Leap,” the hero travels back in time to meet Kerouac.
References to the beats have also popped up in popular songs, advertising (Gilbey’s Gin and The Gap) and movies (“Field of Dreams,” “Matinee,” “Peggy Sue Got Married”).
Beat-imitating poets are hot in New York clubs.
There are several theories about why the beats still resonate.
For one thing, writers such as Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs (“Naked Lunch”), Diane DiPrima, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and others remain forceful and compelling, particularly for the young.
“The music, the ideas, the spiritual seeking still have juice, tremendous juice,” said Anne Waldman, a poet, confidante of Ginsberg and director of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., a college dedicated to Buddhist teachings.
During a July tribute at Naropa attended by several hundred students, Ginsberg was asked why the beats are winning a new audience.
“Basically,” he answered in typically concise beat fashion, “because of the sincerity of the works of art, the passion, the feeling of self-empowerment, independent of government, media and social conditioning, the breaking out of the plastic mass into human flesh and blood, vulnerability and tenderness, which is a good model for younger people and which I think they are now being attracted to after 20 years of the Reagan-Bush-Nixonian ugly spirit, put-down of the human spirit, devastation of the planet, assault on mother Earth, desensitization to the ecology, disinterest in expansive consciousness, (and) disinterest in the American tradition from Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman and expansive heart and awareness. . . .”
They were young men--and a few women--who gathered around Columbia University in New York during the World War II era and later in San Francisco’s North Beach.
Most were middle class, some were veterans, others had resisted military service. They were repulsed by militarism, McCarthyism and the seeming forced march to suburban respectability. They took drugs and befriended petty criminals.
“The beats recognized that to be an outsider is not to be sick but to be angelic,” said Mitchell J. Smith, a Kerouac scholar and editor of the Escondido-based Kerouac Connection, a journal devoted to beat criticism and remembrances.
They quickly became emotionally and, in some cases, sexually involved with each other. They wrote about each other and their adventures and down-and-out times. Twelve of Kerouac’s 13 novels are autobiographical.
The term beat--later corrupted and trivialized by the press into beat nik --was invented by Kerouac and novelist and essayist John Clellon Holmes (“Go”) and meant a variety of things: Beat as in discouraged. Beat as in beaten down to essentials. Beat as in the beat of jazz music. Beat as in beatific or seeking beatitude .
Kerouac idolized saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and developed a literary aesthetic he called “bop prosody.” He believed in “spontaneous prose” where sentences take flights of imagination and not even the author is sure of the destination at the start, much like a jazz player improvising riffs.
Ginsberg coined the phrase “first thought, best thought.” Beat literature often rushes forward in great gusts of images and emotions.
In “Visions of Cody,” Kerouac writes of crisscrossing America:
“At the juncture of the state line of Colorado, its arid western one, and the state line of Utah I saw in the clouds huge and massed above the fiery golded desert of eveningfall the great image of God with forefinger pointed straight at me through halos and rolls and gold folds that were like the existence of the gleaming spear in His right hand, and sayeth, Go thou across the ground; go moan for man; go moan, go groan, go groan alone go roll your bones, alone; go thou and be little beneath my sight; go thou, and be minute and as seed in the pod, but the pod the pit, world a Pod, universe a Pit: go thou, go thou, die hence; and of Cody report well and truly.”
New Jersey poet Joel Lewis wrote recently in the American Poetry Review that the beats “spoke in direct, vibrant speech about previously unvoiced topics such as Buddhism, homosexuality, the pain of drug addiction and the monstrous suppression of the spirit in Western culture.”
They defied the conventions of poetry that stressed rhyme, meter and symbolism. “We saw that the art of poetry was essentially dead--killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of love, and by disinterest,” wrote McClure.
In his 1959 poem “I Am 25,” Corso, the angriest and yet funniest beat poet, wrote “I HATE OLD POETMEN!” and said he would like to “rip out their apology-tongues and steal their poems.”
If there is an apotheosis for the Beat Generation, it occurred on Oct. 7, 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco when Ginsberg first read “Howl.” American poetry was forever changed by its rage, raucous cadence and sexual candor: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix . . . “
Ferlinghetti, who was in the audience, published “Howl” and its companion poems in a slim volume that hipsters carried in their back pockets. Ferlinghetti was charged with distributing obscene material.
After a UC Berkeley professor testified to the literary merit of “Howl,” Ferlinghetti was found not guilty. But the beats’ legal troubles were not over. McClure was arrested repeatedly for obscenity during performances of his play “The Beard.”
“The true individual in America,” said Cheryl Mueller, a doctoral student at Bowling Green University, “is someone who develops a new language that is outside the bounds of thinkable thought. That’s a perfect description of the beats.”
In Southern California, Venice was the center of the beat scene. Stuart Z. Perkoff was the best known of the beat poets here. “His readings are recalled with almost religious enthusiasm by survivors of the Venice scene,” wrote critic Paul Vangelisti.
In June, some of Perkoff’s friends, family and lovers gathered to honor him. Philomene Long, a poet who teaches writing at UCLA, stayed with Perkoff during the final hours of his battle with cancer and said she “heard the waves of poems in his drowning breath and heard his final poem pressed against his throat awaiting his surrender to his muse.”
Perkoff’s poems have been out of print since his death in 1974. Now, as part of the larger beat revival, they will be published by the National Poetry Foundation at the University of Maine in Orono.
As the 1960s wore on, rock ‘n’ roll replaced poetry and jazz as the vehicle for protest, LSD replaced peyote as the mind-expanding drug of choice and the polemical divisiveness of Vietnam subsumed the debate on the Cold War.
In his 1991 book “Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California,” John Arthur Maynard suggests that the symbolic end of the Beat Generation came on Jan. 14, 1967, at a “gathering of the tribes” at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park; 30,000 people--including Ginsberg, Snyder, McClure and Timothy Leary--attended.
“It was almost literally a torch-passing ceremony,” Maynard wrote. “The day began with a poetry reading and closed with a free concert by the most exciting new properties in the music business, including Quicksilver, Big Brother and the Grateful Dead. . . .”
Two years later Kerouac died of internal bleeding caused by alcoholism. He was 47.
Truman Capote, in an oft-repeated put-down, dismissed Kerouac: “Jack’s work wasn’t writing at all, it was typing.” One critic sniffed that beat poetry was nothing but “shredded prose.”
Now there are signs of a critical re-evaluation.
Marjorie Perloff, professor of humanities at Stanford and one of the country’s foremost critics of 20th-Century poetry, has praised Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs. She argues that Ginsberg helped liberate poetry from a restrictive, conservative outlook.
Still, the push to add the beats to college reading lists may have come less from the faculty lounge than from the dormitory.
Ann Charters, a Kerouac biographer and editor of the “Portable Beat Reader,” published by Viking in 1992, sees the beat revival as part of the challenge being presented by students to the academic notion of what is good literature.
“The whole questioning of the canon, the Great Tradition, that the feminists began, and that the Afro-American studies movement continues, is also true of white middle-class students,” said Charters, who teaches at the University of Connecticut. “White middle-class students are the bulk of the student population and they want to read alternative literature too.”
Even as the beat revival continues, there are cross-currents of criticism. The hottest topic among beat scholars is whether the beats were sexist.
“The beats, whether gay or straight, were very macho,” Perloff said in an interview with the Berkeley-based journal Poetry Flash. At the Naropa conference, Waldman joked that only recently has she convinced Ginsberg to stop referring to women as girls. Charters said that while Kerouac did not rise above the male chauvinism of the 1950s, she believes that charges of sexism are overstated.
Beyond the concern for male bonding, other reasons have been suggested for the beat revival: their preoccupation with self-examination, the postmodern “edge,” their acceptance of homosexuality and bisexuality, and their environmental advocacy.
“The beats were the literary arm of the environmental movement,” said McClure. “The beats were stone-age hippies,” said Ferlinghetti.
The same night that Ginsberg read “Howl” at the Six Gallery, McClure read his angry “For The Death of 100 Whales” about the U.S. Navy hunting the behemoth mammals: “Like sheep or children/Shot from the sea’s bore.”
Some observers suggest that the resurgence in beat literature has been fueled by the economic and social conflicts of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The era’s sense of declining opportunities for the middle class, they say, is a cracked-mirror reflection of the malaise and political cynicism that gripped the country in the 1950s.
Another reason for the revival may be more technological: The boom in compact discs and cassettes. The beats fervently believed that their poetry should be read aloud, preferably to jazz.
Actor David Carradine read a three-hour version of “On The Road” released last year. A primer of beat poetry, “howls, raps & roars,” was released by Fantasy Records. An anthology of Ginsberg’s readings is set to be released by Rhino Records.
Kherdian, editor of the high school anthology, said the beat revival is part of a renewed struggle among poets and poetry lovers to rescue poetry from the “language poets” favored by academia. A protest was held to decry the New Yorker magazine’s preference for poetry about “Greek gods, birdbaths and Connecticut angst.”
Maynard, chronicler of the Venice beats, sees signs in the suburban town where he lives that the beats are back to stay.
“If there are poetry readings in coffeehouses in Simi Valley,” he said, “it’s going on everywhere.”