Jan '04[Home]


Stubby Peg: The Beats
by Tim Scannell

. . .

Why will the effort of the Beat Generation, in a final analysis, not rise to literature? Is it that Kenneth Rexroth, the "godfather of the Beats," was an anarchist (cf. Evergreen Review #1, 1957)? Is it, as John Clellon Holmes wrote in 1952, that "the valueless abyss of modern life [was] unbearable," that Beat "excursions into drugs or promiscuity came out of curiosity, not disillusionment" (New York Times)? Or is it as Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) demonstrates in "Young in New Orleans":

moving about the
I preferred them

and on his headstone—"Don't Try"—that sullen ideologies and run-of-the-mill vices are simply pegs too stubby on which to hang a literary hat?

Anarchism (any ism), drugs, promiscuity, and a choice of rats over humans are facets of immaturity, zits of lonely youth keening its freeze-frame of anguish and despair. Intense and painful writ large, yes, but, withal, it is not substantial enough to create the energy or will for a necessary passage through our Western initiation into adulthood. The Beats, arrested in development, forever flail away in youth's myopic tantrums summarized in The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1985:75) as "drives and accelerations charged by wheels, drugs, sex, drink, or talk."

This is no out-of-hand dismissal of the Beat Generation. I enjoy the Beats, have a section of shelving for them, and emphatically scorn those academically-trained minions of the 'mainstream' who pinch their noses on hearing the names Kerouac, Ginsberg, Bukowski. I am a well-trained academic (no apology), yet also arrange Beat icons in a teasing order—KGB—because those assigning them too high a place in the Western Canon are KGB Stalinists whose laughable notion of Art is to tout their own while purging any other. Teens are tyrannical Absolutists—as any blue-in-the-face parent attests.

It is no irony that puberty and the Beats—and the 60's altogether—merge conceptually as to behavior, content and imagery. All assert the same thing:  nakedness of mind (soul), exploring 'primal forces,' alternative religions (Zen, Buddhism, Hinduism), alternative politics (anarchy, Marxism, internationalism), and delusions about drugs and alcohol. The 60's promised new dispensations regarding love, marriage, familial grouping (the commune), ethnicity (polyculturalism), and knowledge (mind-expanding drugs and gurus). All were abject failures by objective measure. One winces at the bathetic crocodile tears of 55-year-old Jane Olson (2002) whose Symbionese Liberation Army moniker was Kathleen Soliah (1974) when she was planting car bombs, out to overthrow "the fascist insect [America] that preys upon the life of the people." Decades later, she tearfully sniffs, "I don't really remember how I felt then, and it doesn't really matter." Ah Youth—so forgetful! And note that most favored Beat motif:  Amerika is a Fascist…whatever. Maybe it doesn't really matter, but, convicted of placing bombs under cars, Olson now faces a new trial on a 30-year-old charge of felony murder during a bank robbery. "So it goes!"

Of course, Time inexorably destroys teenager-dom, as in Twain's adage:  In my youth, my father was a know-nothing ass, but as I grew older, how intelligent he became! Nakedness of mind/soul/primal force morph into those ancient Seven Deadly Sins and the rickety Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll platform of the 60's falls to earth, resurrected only by the media's tedious replay of flower-child scenes:  Joan Baez singing on the Berkeley campus, kids running toward/from cops, voice-overs wistfully slicin' & dicin' facts, its droning, emptyheaded Kennedy/Camelot/Woodstock bias. As Michael Skau said of Gregory Corso: "a media favorite when the Beat movement exploded in the 1950's because he was 'the prototype of a bad boy'." Ah, media's Andy Warholian Campbell Scoops!

But if one separates the 'bad boys' from the maw of liberalmainstreammedia, what remains? Can readers carve a dimple of a peg for Amiri Baraka' s poem "Black Art"?

We want poems
like fists beating niggers out of Jocks
or dagger poems in the slimy bellies
of the owner jews . . . .
Another bad poem cracking
steel knuckles in a jewlady's mouth

Is modernity's 'valueless abyss' to be filled with bigotry, racism, violence? And Allen Ginsberg's "Howl",

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and
screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors,
caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love

is this really an "excursion out of curiosity, not disillusionment" or merely Sodom & Gomorrah, redux?

Americans respect the right of anyone to say anything, but that does not mean we necessarily respect what is said. The higher standard is always analysis, inference, and judgment. Beat Generation writing is so infested with ideology and ism that it is rhetoric, not poetry or prose. I admire its break from the memetic (representation) to 'personism,' poetry "as an experience itself, a map of moment-to-moment perception whose value is measured by immediacy and sincerity rather than artistic unity" (Frank O'Hara). Yet, sincere moments must still be evaluated. "Even bad poetry is sincere" (Oscar Wilde).

New York City streaming starkeyed subway shelter
Scores and scores a fumble of humanity High heels bend
Hats whelming away Youth forgetting their combs
Ladies not knowing what to do with their shopping bags
unperturbed gum machines

These moments from Gregory Corso's "Bomb" are a Whitmanesque catalogue describing an atomic bomb blast, yet they could be any associative set of objects/images. (Corso also lists fairy tales, Hollywood films, mythologies, etc.) Its fine strength is an informal gathering of everyday image, ordinary activity, the nonce ("whelming away") and clever personification ("unperturbed gum machines"). But lists and varied line-lengths do not make a poem, falling into that favorite Beat/Teen activity:  mere talk. To update the reference, they are a poetry workshop lesson:  "Make a list of 20 words you associate with 'cowness'."

Sadly, the Beats never get past their own conventions of behavior and notion, and so become the true 'squares,' shackled by the same-old/same-old acting out for a tiny circle of friends and fawning media and a horrendous 'Zen moment':  In the room the gurus come and go / Talking of Michelangelo. Happily, the bulk of American teens struggle toward and into adulthood:  flex-time and househusbandry, worker-ownership and IRA's, E-zines and palm pilots, eco-tours and SUV's, Globalism and high-tech war (inventively reaching back regarding Afghanistan, with American soldiers on horseback calling up smart-bomb strikes from cellular telephones).

In rejecting the values of Western Civilization—education, self-improvement, risk, serendipity—the Beats paint themselves into an impossible corner of enervating tribalism. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) gives more column inches to Ekphrasis than to the entire Beat Generation. The reader enjoys Beat informality, but their work makes no conceptual breakthrough. One enjoys observing their disjointed, helter-skelter lives, yet the Beat landscape is so narrow (casual sex, hangovers, movement) and predictable (talk, talk, talk), that an attentive reader begins cataloguing the 99% of reality to which they were oblivious while driving "crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if I had a vision / or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity" ("Howl").

Unfortunately, those drivers sped by 'eternity.' Hanging about with the surveyors of Eisenhower's 40,000-mile National Defense Highway, with its challenges of grade, bridge and curve, would have been more visionary. The wonders of cheap, reliable cars, gas and tires would have been. The wrangles of municipal hegemony, along rights-of-way for budding motel chains and eateries, would have been more prophetic. The tidal migrations of citizens, the set-asides for wildlife, glimmerings of corporate farms and housing tracts, the economic recoveries of Europe and Japan, and the machinations of the Cold War all would have been—poetically—more rhapsodic. The Beat Generation was not 'curious.' They missed the writing of millions of value-laden poems (hip/groovy/cool/heavy/rad) to illuminate the Post-WWII world.

Tim Scannell is a prolific, independent reviewer. He lives in Washington State.