Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

24 May 1994

Sympathy for the Beats

once and future beats flew in and blew out from coast to coast waving negative capability in middle-age potbelly t-shirt jack kerouac signifying attire, in jackets and ties and brown loafers, speaking first thought, best thought, of highway nostalgia and old-fashioned american fascism, of benign and benificent allen ginsberg (his mantra echoing still: "closer to the mike, closer to the mike") and no-show ken kesey whose creamery just burned down and poor dead neal cassady glowing sativa and rootin', tootin', heroin-shootin' bill burroughs. so much absence in these presences. so much world-weary answer seeking in the cobalt blue spontaneously revised sacred texts. but not enough fuzzy-headed presence of tricky gregory corso and maybe too much handsome leathery michael mcclure, smug poet shiva chicks hissed from thinly padded checkerboard chairs. (i know not why). pass me the key to the little America comfort station on i-80, then blow me those see-through dharma blues, action daddy. no regrets. because "we loved it when they called us beatniks," channeled friendly fug ed sanders from behind the sheer mumbly boredom of stupidstupidstupid hunter s. thompson's cancerous haze. they loved to hear the baby bus buddha chirp jeep-jik, jeep-jik . and girls there were girls but not the sort of kali girls that jack and neal cuddled and cut away from. with rings through their eyelids and bells on their toes, but never too much hettie jones. rather instead from the academic steno pool busily noting names dates places of happy fucking days will never be here again while endless poetry readings may taunt us forever. and there were boys but not too many from the lower east village, the forever-after bum fuzz clinging to their chinny-chin-chins like semiotic stick-ons and bristling in anxious anticipation of what? beck, a beat? film crews nervously capturing special recoil junk essence of conference fee 225 dollars. but tell me again, allen, one more time before we all float off or doze away upon your ecstatic two-minute meditation that drew the curtain but opened my mind to the dusky air-conditioned hum. remind me about the "intergenerational transmission of sympathy " before i forget once again to remember how it was, failing to follow you and spiritual spouse anne waldman to naropa, naropa, naropa . . .

* * *

"This is like my wildest dream come true," gushed Ann Charters, honorary co-chair, with Allen Ginsberg, of "The Beat Generation: Legacy and Celebration." At long last legitimacy. Since the event's chronological hook was the fiftieth anniversary of Ginsberg meeting Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs uptown, Columbia University might have been an even more legitimating venue, Charters suggested from the podium. But here we all were nonetheless, back in Greenwich Village, or at least NYU's Loeb Student Center.

Some of us. For ghosts and absent friends loomed large--the spirits of Kerouac, Cassady, and Burroughs most of all. Having firstly and ferociously made the private public, Kerouac and the Beat posse literally turned their lives into art, passing along the most intimately rendered portrait of a literary generation in history. No earlier artistic scene had ever been rendered with so much warts-and-all transparency as the Beats, both in their own works and in posthumous remembrances by friends and lovers (and in Ginsberg's and Fred W. McDarrah's photographs). This radical visibility perhaps lends the impression of a generation possessing greater human heft than it actually possessed As Hettie Jones observed, "'Generation' seems a misnomer, unless you consider a generation small enough to fit into my livingroom."

One thing we do know about the Beat generation: it wore khakis. Which these days signifies staying power, stylistic continuity, and a bridging of generations through capitalist magic. It's difficult to escape the surface parallels between 1950s bohemia and a broad strand of contempo mainstream youth culture. Baggy pants and sneakers, crewcuts, goatees, and a general sense of, well, beatness; poetry slams and poetry on MTV; alcohol, reefer, and junk as party drugs with psychedelics on the rebound (Ginsberg recalled an East Village shop that sold peyote as though it were kiwi); the espresso chic of cafes attracting "bitniks" who lounge around public computer terminals; chatty, spontaneously composed rap music; waiflike women offered as fashion accessories--all these things bespeak a cultural time warp. Johnny Depp is Jack Kerouac in an upcoming Francis Ford Coppola production of On the Road . Likewise, the bomb hanging over our heads in the '50s and '60s is no more nor less threatening than the economic or environmental catastrophes that frighten us now. All the warning signs of one Beat context sketched by author John Tytell--cultural displacement, disaffiliation, distrust of reality, individuality threatened by faceless authority--arguably menace many still. Question is, has anything been learned in the interim?

The Beats have much to answer for. Kerouac and Ginsberg may hover near the roots of confessional journalism, but the fallout of their work drifts silently over plenitude of the tell-all talk shows chattering across the airwaves (the tragic latter days of Saint Jack read like an Oprah Winfrey marathon). The Internet, meanwhile, transmits spontaneous, confessional prose in massive gigabytes, from New York's Echo to San Francisco's WELL. Never has so much intimacy been made so public to so many, and it has everything to do with the casual, loopy romanticism of Kerouac's massive oeuvre, and Ginsberg's brave celebration of the body, his body. Yet as Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia observed, Kerouac's penchant for spontaneity, a spontaneity simultaneously betrayed by translation into language, is exactly what made his work anethema to so many scholars for so many years, but today lies behind the increasing desire among the scholarly community to attain access to Kerouac manuscripts.

From the personal to the public to the political, we heard Edward de Grazia's succinct history of censorship in America followed by Ginsberg's ironic observation that neither Howl, On the Road, and Naked Lunch were all written not for mass publication but instead for "candid exploration of our own minds." However, he continued, the same censorship of the printed word that obtained in the 1960s still persists today as censorship of the spoken word on radio and television since 1988, when Jesse Helms introduced the law prohibiting "indecent language" 24 hours a day in response to on-air readings of Howl by a Pacifica radio station. "It's a perfectly fine poem," the FCC responded to Ginsberg. "All you have to do is take out a few paragraphs."

Censorship inhabits other modes, too. "They always seem to ghettoize these women together," remarked poet cohort Anne Waldman, who chaired the panel on "Women and the Beat Generation." Rufusing to function as "apologist" for a "boy's club mentality," Waldman advised a young female correspondent skeptical about Beat sexual politics to first "go to the text, go to the writing." Carolyn Cassady, who recounted her fairly glum adventures with Neal and Jack in Heart Beat , blamed herself, or at least her "own conditioned attitudes" (one student asked, "Did you ever think of the two men you were involved with as puppies?"). Jan Kerouac, sporting a devilish red dress and movie-star shades, looked like she'd be more comfortable making a scene than talking about one. She read from an unpublished work by her mother, Joan Haverty, who revealed "an unspoken commitment . . . to listen to everything [Jack Kerouac] had to say with neither contribution nor criticism." Joyce Johnson, also unforgiving, recalled, that although "we took care of our male counterparts, they didn't take care of us. We would have been excess baggage on the road." Hettie Jones, however, just went for it. "I didn't sleep with all of them, but that might have been nice," she grinned. "Strong women need strong men, or at least noisy ones."

The noise was on display in a healthy hullaballoo of readings and performances connected with "The Beat Generation." If you were into musically accompanied poetics, McClure and former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek were your men. But when did poetry readings start costing 10, 20, 30 bucks? A sold-out Town Hall embraced the whole coolly aging crew, while a late-evening women's reading at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery was a soulful celebration that also played to an SRO crowd. A marathon reading of On the Road from the Student Center Terrace became just another long lingual thread winding through the Washington Square circus.

The vitality of such writers and performers as Ginsberg, Burroughs, Ted Joans, Cecil Taylor, and Hettie Jones still commands attention. And while the African-American panel proposed by Thomas Gayton early on never happened, the influence of black culture on the Beats offers much fertile ground for further research, though the near total whiteness of the crowd might have suggested otherwise. But because so many conventions and nuances of Beat style have been absorbed at so many levels, it takes real effort to recognize its modernity. Beat, as someone pointed out during the Beats and Buddhism panel, always implies a past-tense sense of something done, finished, instant history: that's another way to say pop culture.

As self-sustaining as the Beats may have been, modern self-styled Beatdom tends to degenerate into self-parody, as exemplified by the MTV-meets-Charles Kuralt shtick packaged by the Mad Monks. Beatdom offered the adventure of a (literally) disenfranchised national canvas, the exoticism of Eastern religion, and a literary style souped up on speed and clarity. Does it offer a strategy for the '90s (think nomadic thought, temporary autonomous zones, rave culture, and Britain's peripatetic Travellers)? Are unhappy days here again?