The defining moment of the Beat Generation came in 1956 when poet, publisher and bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"--and was forced to defend himself in court against charges of obscenity. "Without Allen Ginsberg, there wouldn't be any Beat Generation," insists Ferlinghetti, dean of the surviving Beat poets, in "San Francisco Beat: Talking With the Poets," edited by David Meltzer (City Lights, $19.95, 379 pages). "He created it out of whole cloth."
Ginsberg is dead, but the Beats go on, as David Meltzer allows us to see by including the transcripts of 13 memorable and illuminating conversations with such members of the Beat Generation as Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and William Everson. Five of the interviews were conducted (and first published) in the 1970s, the rest were recorded in the 1990s, and the book includes a few "then and now" conversations from both periods.
All of the interviews are raw and edgy, full of ramblings and moments of rhetorical excess, yet are always intimate and illuminating. Nothing better evokes the delightful experience of encountering Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the flesh, for example, than a bit of word play that appears at the outset of Meltzer's 1999 follow-up interview with him.
Meltzer [testing the mike]: Say something.
Ferlinghetti: Yeah, say something to see whether you're alive.
DM: This is a coda to the interview that we did about 30 years ago.
LF: Coda is "tail" in Italian.
DM: Well, this is the tail of the tale then.
LF: Let's wag the coda.
Meltzer is not content with merely polishing up the old myths and legends of the Beat Generation, which Ferlinghetti characterizes as "a fairy tale." Rather, he wants us to understand that the Beats were courageous and daring, and they deliberately put themselves on the cutting edge of art and letters.
To reduce them to the status of colorful eccentrics, Meltzer suggests, is to miss the whole point: The Beats sought to make a whole new future, and, as Michael McClure puts it, quoting Alfred North Whitehead, "It is the business of the future to be dangerous."
"The reclamation and reinvention of the Beats and Beat literature in the '90s is an international phenomena that at once recognizes the dissident spirit of the Beats, removes it from historical complexity, makes it safe, and turns it into products and artifacts," explains Meltzer. "In the 21st century, postmodernism happily coexists with Beat retro nostalgia."
Meltzer guards against "retro nostalgia" in his own conversations with the Beats. That's why, at its best moments, the book allows us to see exactly how the poets of the Beat Generation both irritated and inspired each other. According to Diane Di Prima, the only woman interviewed in the book, Kenneth Rexroth "acted like [a] lecherous old [guy]," and yet she praises him as someone who was "valiant and wonderful and helped me many times."
"It's just that I don't think guys of that generation," she explains, "had ever encountered a girl who was writing but wasn't particularly on the make."
William Everson confesses that his first encounter with Ginsberg was "not a happy one." Everson, a former Dominican lay brother, resented Ginsberg's disdainful attitude toward expressions of piety.
To illustrate the point, he relates one of Ginsberg's favorite jokes about a holy man in India, the punch line of which cannot be repeated in a family newspaper. Still, Everson readily acknowledges that nothing in American poetry was quite the same after Ginsberg.
"His poem 'Howl' remains what Rexroth first called it: 'The confessions of faith of a new generation,' " recalls William Everson. "Few people yet grasp how so much of what is happening now goes back to the writing of a poem in the Drake Hotel cafeteria on Powell Street in San Francisco."
Los Angeles is a city where "whites have fallen short of an outright majority [and] the global has become local," as Julian Murphet points out in "Literature and Race in Los Angeles" (Cambridge University Press, $54.95 (hardcover), $19.95 (softcover), 203 pages). For that reason, Murphet sees Los Angeles--and, more particularly, the work of authors and poets who write about L.A.--as an example of what happens when a postmodern metropolis shatters under the weight of its own diversity.
"Los Angeles should be a reliable test case for determining the role and future of literature itself on the world scene," writes Murphet, "at the moment of its greatest crisis since Homer--its marginalization."
Murphet concedes that he is not especially interested in the "purified 'post-modern' white writing of Joan Didion," for example, or what he calls the "conventional, white-based, liberal" work of Carolyn See, T. Coraghessan Boyle and John Gregory Dunne. Still, he insists that he has tried to address "a 'representational' cross-section of the city's literature" by focusing on, among others, novelists James Ellroy, Walter Mosley and Bret Easton Ellis, poets Wanda Coleman, Luis J. Rodriguez and Sesshu Foster, and performance artist Anna Deavere Smith.
He sees, for example, the shared concerns of Ellroy and Mosley. One is white, the other black, each has reinvented the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction in his own image, and yet both address what Murphet calls the "everyday politics of survival."
"Both Ellroy and Mosley are vehemently opposed to the . . . colonization of everyday life by spectacles, consumerism and separation, which afflicts both white authority structures and black community solidarity alike," Murphet argues. "Their detectives are on that case, above all else, and are powerless to do anything about it."
"Literature and Race in Los Angeles" is a brief but urgent and sharply observed survey of the literary terrain of Los Angeles. At moments, the Oxford-based Murphet writes in the coded words and phrases of a scholar addressing his fellow scholars, but more often he is capable of showing us new and provocative ways to look at our city, ourselves and the writers who have tried to capture us in print.
West Words looks at books related to California and the West. Jonathan Kirsch can be reached at email@example.com.