The Beat

Do the writers of the Beat era still matter in 2005?

I think they do. Scarred by commercialism and marred by cliche, the best authors of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s underground are still relevant. The literary experiments that beatnik authors were famous for — loud poetry readings, collaborative works, marathon sessions of deranged composition — are still considered avant-garde today. And the themes of the Cold War/Vietnam era — modernity, ecology, violence, paranoia and war — certainly resonate today.

Among the hundreds of writers and poets who could have been considered part of the Beat Generation or any of its offshoots, a tiny few are important enough to be considered timeless. I thought I’d spend today’s column talking about new posthumous releases from two of them.

The popularity of Charles Bukowski today, a decade after his death, is a wonderful enigma. No market research in the world could have ever chosen him as an American idol. He was an ugly, middle-aged former post office employee when he began writing newspaper columns in the late 60’s. His writing style was flat and artless, but he had boundless charm, and his columns always told the truth.

Like Gregory Corso, Charles Bukowski had one big advantage as a writer: a strange kind of charisma that permeated his every word. But where Corso filigreed his works with baroque poetics, Bukowski remains feral, plain, uncorrupted by social norms. Charles Bukowski evokes an animal sense of being, and this is why he has become a symbol of freedom for everyone who has ever felt oppressed in our modern age.

A brand new DVD, Bukowski in Bellevue, is a rare document of this unique writer performing one of the first poetry readings of his career. It’s the spring of 1970 at Bellevue Community College, and Bukowski sits nervously among a posse of college students who look like they’re dressed up for Kent State. Bukowski’s early poems are raw, aching, tentative, shy. ‘My Father Was’ is a stuttering list of free associations about the author’s father, whereas ‘Kaakaa and Other Immolations’ reverses the stance, as the author relates a humorous bathroom conversation with his three year old daughter.

The film of this performance is low-quality black and white, but this doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, the homespun production values are a welcome relief from the typical Blockbuster Video two-DVD-set fluff. This disk simply begins, and it’s as if Charles Bukowski is sitting in my living room.

I was also very impressed by a new book of Jack Kerouac’s artwork, Departed Angels, with notes by Ed Adler. I was beginning to wonder if there was anything new for the world to discover about Jack Kerouac, but this book proves the fountain is not yet dry.

Like his writing, Kerouac’s paintings and sketches are deeply passionate, powerful, messy and painfully naive. As in his novels, I turn page after page and am blown away by the intensity of expression.

I can also see how much modern art meant to Jack Kerouac, because he puts his inspirations and influences front and center. His writings always broadcasted their influences loudly — one book recalls Dostoevsky, another Joyce, another Melville, another Wolfe or Thoreau. Similarly, his paintings are completely derivative, but this fact reveals him to be well-educated and broadly interested rather than imitative, because his synthesis of the elements is perfectly original, and his talent for derivation is amazing. Turning the pages of this book is like walking through the Jack Kerouac Museum of Modern Art — there’s a Matisse, a Raoul Dufy, a Francis Bacon, a De Kooning, a Pollock, a Manet, a Toulouse-Lautrec. And, of course, a few Van Goghs.

Not surprisingly, religious imagery that combines Buddhism and Catholicism is the dominant theme in his artwork. Saints and Boddhisatvas congregate, especially in his later work from the mid-60’s when he was considered dried up as a writer. Maybe so, but his artwork from that period manages to feel fresh. This book left me with a much greater respect for the all-around skills of this always-misunderstood American icon.

On a different side of the Beat spectrum, I wanted to mention a small but joyful publication, Butcher’s Block, edited by David Greenspan of Rockaway, Queens. This is an affectionate, beautifully illustrated homemade journal that features many of the talented writers and personalities who are part of the broad family of “Beat survivors”. I’ve met many of these authors and poets at New York City gatherings and openings and readings or on various online Beat discussion areas — Danny Shot, Janine Pommy Vega, Ira Cohen, Charles Plymell, Marie Kazalia, Tony Moffeit, Herschel Silverman, Laki Vazakas, Steve Dalachinsky, Linda Lerner, Aaron Howard, S.A. Griffin. This publication promotes the spirit of togetherness and friendship between the large circle of personalities who populate all the Beat scenes from the 50’s to today. Butcher’s Block is so low-tech I can find no web presence for it at all, but you can buy a copy by sending ten bucks to Butcher’s Shop Press, 529 Beach 132nd Street, Rockaway Beach NY 11694.

What place does the “Beat Generation” hold in your own literary canon these days?

26 Responses

  1. My BeatHaving started reading
    My Beat

    Having started reading beat only relatively recently, and having been sucked in (not) screaming and (non-)kicking by the opportunities of the style, I can say beat literature holds a high spot in my canonical bookcase.

    Some of this is connected to my interest in understanding counterculture and the linkages between generational countercultures, but most is due to the freedoms associated with Kerouac’s style — I find it very easy to put my thought’s down promptly, thereby maintaining a certain trueness to my sentiments and flavours at the time.

    Lastly, I believe beat literature from all ends of the spectrum provide another lens for readers to view storytelling and style through, and one that is most usually fresh. If it still lives, it is still relevant, I suppose.

  2. Without the BeatsWithout the
    Without the Beats

    Without the Beats, there’d have been no hippies, no Stooges, and no punk reaction. The band Morphine, to your correspondent, seemed very derivative of the Beats. Without the Beats, British and American Literature would really suck, e.g., Burroughs’ Naked Lunch obscenity trials opened the doors to freedom of expression that are best left open unconditionally. Without the Beats, poetry would still be stilted rather than alive.

    In 2005, i.e., from what your correspondent receives from the media, it’s like almost none of what went before mattered and it is as what was before never made a difference. One prays that consciousness will be raised but from all evidence it hasn’t in 2005. At least the past shows what was; present pop culture only seems a sad reflection of that colorful kaleidoscope. Many would blame this on the corporatization of the media and culture, i.e. cater to the lowest common denominator, a suit strategy that made some hip-hoppers very rich by ignoring that genre.

    Butcher’s Block–unread by this correspondent–and this site seem to be carrying the standard of the old Beat avante-garde.

    As an aside, no one can really predict pop culture. It could start accelerating because rather than four seasons of clothing, there could be six. Some shops in Tokyo are marketing clothes that way, as cheap fashion, to be worn now with more new to be bought later. It also seems the marketing scheme in Japanese comics.

    A second aside; your correspondent found out about Bukowski in Denton, Texas in 1993 while talking with some musicians, who said, in the hallowed tone of a repeated cool rumor, as if you knew this truth you were hip, “Man, you got to read Bukowski”; but later, after seeing the film “Barfly”, screenplay written by Bukowski, wondered what the attraction was in derelicts in dives, until after reading:

    “before my death I hope to obtain my life.” Chas. Bukowski, from blank gun silencer — 1994

    There’s Bukowski on this PC but none of the Beats on the bookshelf, unless Gardner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage qualifies.

  3. You know what’s sad? Back
    You know what’s sad? Back when Naked Lunch was written, it was assumed that almost everyone could read, even children. The censors didn’t want the book published. Today, most “morality police” don’t care what is in a book because they know most people won’t read it anyway, but they are fining the hell out of radio DJ’s for saying things that Burroughs said years ago.

  4. Writing as Spiritual
    Writing as Spiritual Practice

    The Beats will always occupy a privileged space on my bookshelf, the eye-level shelf, the easiest place to see and reach. This is because of the spiritual seeking that is at the heart of my favorite Beat works, the spiritual seeking that is both the subject of the work, and on a meta-level, the driving force of the process. Jack Keroauc said writing was a form of prayer. I know of no other writer (but I admit that I am by no means a fountain encyclopedia of literature), who expressed so sacred a view of the process of writing, who was so excited about the potential of the form as a means of spiritual revelation. Writing is prayer. That’s powerful.

    Who else so trusted his own mind, that he refused to edit (or claimed he did), because it would otherwise profane what is sacred? What a radical statement for individuality, originality and existentialness.

    Nowdays, new ageism has become a pish posh of spiritual agendas. Everyone knows a thing or two about Buddhism, you can even buy (the horror) a budhist starter kit at Barnes and Nobles, with all the acoutrements to build an altar, including pop-up figurines of gods, who look like pieces for a board game. I think it was even endorsed by the Dali Lama. You can get books on Shamanism, occult, it seems almost mainstream to be “non-mainstream” in one’s spiritual practices. But, the spiritual climiate in the 50s was obviously different. It was radical then to declare oneself a Buddhist. It must have been an exciting thing to do.

  5. FirstThis was a great read

    This was a great read Levi, enjoyed it immensely, makes me wanna get that journal for my collection.

    Yeah, I’m a Beataholic and keep a ebay watch for Beat poetry books on a daily basis. Just got some Bab Kaufman books and a Gary Snyder assortment that’s awesome. I am not alone in this quest and sometimes the bidding gets hot and heavy.

    In answer to the main question I feel “YES”, Beat writers do still matter today. There was evudence of this at the poetry reading I was in yesterday when one of the poets used a reference to Herbert Huncke in a poem during the open mike session. After he finished my friend Tommy Di Venti a poet and musician corrected his pronunciation to Hunck”e” as it should be said, and mentioned he knew him in the early 80’s as well as some of the other Beats one of whom Jack Micheline had been crashing at his place back then for 6 months. We also talked about a show that some of the beats did here in Sowebo back then. Within our conversation Tommy mentioned how he finally had to toss Micheline out for his freeloading would go to far. Tommy’s got some stories for sure.

    I probably could go on all night about Beat, for it has had that big an impact on my art and life.

  6. And don’t Americans only
    And don’t Americans only listen to the radio in their cars? Are soccer moms part of the shock radio listening audience?

  7. The NexusI can sometimes
    The Nexus

    I can sometimes forget how special Kerouac’s words are. I start thinking, to paraphrase one critic, “What’s the big deal? They are forever piling into beat-up cars and driving across the country.” A lot of people try to “write like Kerouac” when all they are doing is describing a night of partying. Kerouac is much more. Not long ago I read Tristessa and there are passages in that book which blew me away from their poetic, fine-sensory-observational qualities.

    Also, I really believe the Beats were pivotal; linking all the important literature that inspired them to whatever we call modern, post-modern, metafiction, or web tribes.

    I can identify with the Beat writers. I appreciate Thoreau (a lot!) but I never lived in a cabin. I recognize greatness around the globe: Dickens, Dostoevsky, Basho, Nietzsche, but none of them watched Steve Allen or the Three Stooges on black & white TV, or push-started a car, or used wire transmissions to automatically set type, like reporters for United Press could do starting in 1951. That was the year the first teletypestter was introduced.

  8. Underground Through the
    Underground Through the Ages

    Now, I didn’t live back during the Beat gen, but I always wonder “exactly” how it started? Was it a reaction to a boring uncreative popular culture, or was it simply something going on underground among artists and friends. Were the Beats popular in those days? Were they misunderstood?

    Today I feel as though there is an underground bohemian movement, there always is, but it must be very underground, because I don’t see it. The mainstream culture doesn’t seem to embrace it right now. In the 90’s, anything “alternative” was praised and some bands and artists reached high fame which I found amazing. That stuff just doesn’t seem to happen anymore. Just watered down masqueraders who are mainstream but pretend they are underground. But none of that stuff matters. What matters is if what artists and authors are doing rings true, and contains a mixture of innovation and defiance, speaks for those who cannot form words, and says what people think but were afraid to say. That’s how I look at what the Beats were doing. And I don’t care if they were or will be popular or not or if in 50 years the kids don’t know who they are. I know they are a group I admire for their outspoken creativity, their quiet genius. I aspire to write like them, and know I never will be able to as good as they did.

  9. Growing up in that Beat time
    Growing up in that Beat time and remembering all the Beat Poet bongo jokes and remembering how low on the literary totem poll these guys and gals were in the 70’s when I really got into reading “Literature”… well it’s amazing to see the turn of events in this past 30 years, literally from laughing stocks to perhaps the literary movement of the century. Through it all I always was inspired and into what they had to say and yes when I tell people I’m gonna be reading they still make the bongo jokes…

  10. I have a thought – I don’t
    I have a thought – I don’t know if my thought relates directly to what you are saying – but anyway, here it is:

    Every era has certain things that everyone recognizes. The earliest art on cave walls included animals because most everyone had seen animals.

    In ancient Greece, ships had become icons which everyone recognized. Homer wrote in the Odysey about Odysseus and his fleet of ships. Hundred of years later, in the 1700’s and 1800’s, ships were still popular, as in Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

    The sword has certainly been brandished on pages, from the Legend of King Arhtur to the plays of Shakespeare.

    Another iconic object was the bell. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, in his poem Christmas Bells,
    “I heard the bells on Christmas Day
    Their old familiar carols play
    And wild and sweer
    The words repeat
    Of peace on Earth,good-will to men!”

    I like Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Bells. Poe uses bells to describe four facets of life.
    1. Happiness, youth, & light – “Hear the sledges with the bells–
    Silver bells–
    What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
    How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
    In the icy air of night!”

    2. Adulthood, marriage – “Hear the mellow wedding-bells,
    golden bells!
    What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!”

    3. Alarm, fear, as in fire a fire alarm – “Hear the loud alarm bells–
    Brazen bells!
    What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
    In the startled ear of night
    How they scream out their affright!”

    4. Death – “Hear the tolling of the bells–
    Iron bells!
    What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
    …on the human heart a stone–
    They are neither man nor woman–
    They are neither brute nor human–
    They are Ghouls!”

    Now, I went through all that to say this: Bells and ships are man-made, but they seem to have been around forever. They seem almost as natural as the animals in the cave drawings.

    I believe that the late 1940’s and early 1950’s was the era in which cars came to be true semi-organic icons. Dark green Rambler with am radios and cigarette lighter and picnic baskets in the trunk, carrying lovers and friends to open fields for side-road relaxation in sunny smile mid-American dream; old rusty clunkers in junk yards; the pick-up truck with no tires, sitting near a barn or silo, permanently settled into a patch of green grass with a dragon fly buzzing around the antenna; shiny new automobiles of red, blue, and beige models stacked securely on train car racks. Rolling into town!

    On the Road.

    And by the way, there is no reason for you to think you “never will be able to as good as they did.” You can learn the process but don’t pressure yourself and or get streesed out. Just keep writing. Pick up tips and ideas along the way, and you never know, there may be some magic involved but it’s mostly just a process.

  11. And another thing . . .I
    And another thing . . .

    I admire about the Beats is that they did not become money grubbing cowards, like most the “hippie generation” spokepersons. Bob Dylan- coward- David Bowie- coward- Mick Jagger- coward- Paul McCartney- coward, and so on. They are so afraid of poverty and obcurity that they are willing to humiliate themselves and profane all they once professed, by commercials and crass blatant greed. You listen to classic rock radio stations and whenever discussion turns to concert tours, the main focus is how much money these jackasses are making from recycling music that was written thirty years ago. That’s the focus, not whether the music rocked or the performance, but which so-called artist is going to gross the most money from ticket sales. And I think we’re supposed to be impressed.

    And I know many people who were apparantly hippies, and now you can’t possibly imagine how someone could change so much, how their values could be so radically different and banal. It has become the accepted sociological, demographic interpretation of the so-called hippie generation. There was even a VW Bug commercial: “if you sold your soul in the 80s, buy it back in the 90s.”

    It’s no wonder there does not seem to be a readily identifiable bohemian sub-culture. We have learned a lesson from history and that lesson has made us cynical and bitter.

    The Beats, however, did not seem to change their values so radically, that one decade their talking about freedom, art, beauty, and God, and the next decade all they want is comfort and a nice toilet to park their pampered asses when they have to shit. Certainly Ginsberg, Burroughs, among others, appeared to remain true to the zeitgeist of Beat right till the end. Some say Keroauc became staunchly conservative, but I think simply more confused is a better explanation.

    Anyway, I think the integrity of the artists remained intact.

  12. Yeah, those bongos are a
    Yeah, those bongos are a convenient handle people can relate to.

  13. There is an amazing device on
    There is an amazing device on most radios, even the radios in SUV’s.

    It is called a channel selecter, and the soccer moms can put it on whatever channel they want, thereby avoiding the near-fatal shock of the “f” word.

  14. Hey, what a great post. I
    Hey, what a great post. I like your argument! I’m glad I’m not the only one who seems upset at the way American culture has been heading. I feel I am becoming a cynic and am bitter about all sorts of things. We’re in somewhat of a war right now, so hopefully things will be influenced for the better. There were great movements around WW1, WW2, and especially Vietnam. I only wonder what’s going to happen to this world of commercialized frustration … Or is it only frustrating for us dreamers–because we know that we humans can be and achieve so much more?

    I think that we should shut the television off. Movies are great, but the media is biased. Plus now we have cell phones, and the internet to keep us up to date. Brion Gysin had an idea to take the television out of the home, and replace it with the television of the brain, the Dreamachine. It would be a great idea, for those who aren’t epileptic.

  15. Kerouac you have to take with
    Kerouac you have to take with a grain of salt. Of course that’s probably well known. But I can’t believe how smart he actually was!! Wow! He could so easily blend the styles of various pop culture artifacts (movie stars, comedians, comic books, movies, WW2, television shows, news media, ad infinitum) with his memory, and his long list of literary influences. To really appreciate what he was doing with the word, you have to be well educated with the time and place he lived in. One might not understand that in parts of Visions of Cody, for example, he’s writing in his versions of Joyce’s fragmented stream-of-consciousness, Ulysses/Finnegan’s Wake, along with Tristan Tzara “mental” cut-ups, infused with WC Field’s pun and grin, and a bop jazz improv!

    He’s brought up interest in me to tons of authors, and musicians, along with fascination in the post-war era in which he was most productive.

  16. Hmmm … I’m not going to
    Hmmm … I’m not going to respond to the motivations for behaviour of certain artists, nor why we should expect them to conform to our own romantic notions of how they should behave, but I guess did, eh?

    As for relevance, if a guy in his mid-forties, such as me, can pick up Kerouac in middle age and become engrossed in the genre, then I’d have to say the relevance has been maintained. I’m not certain punk’s connections are so strong strong to Beat, as someone else has suggested. Everything I see points towards these folks picking up the influence mid-career, as opposed to it influencing them from the beginning. But certainly there must be a connection, perhaps through guys like Wolfe, Thompson, Kesey, or others, so i think they were influential and relevant in that respect.

    Mind you, some doubt my integrity, so maybe I’m not the best to speak on it. 🙂

  17. Good point, Sax. When I read
    Good point, Sax. When I read Kerouac’s Dr. Sax, for example, I was quite familiar with W.C. Fields, but I would guess that most younger people today don’t know who he is. Of course, the really serious reader can inquire into these things. Like, when I first read the word “Faustian” as a kid, I looked it up or asked someone (probably asked someone in my laziness).

  18. But what good would that do
    But what good would that do our children, Bill? All those children who play all day in the SUV without parental supervision or who spend all that spare time listening to the radio? It is a trend, you see – kids and radios. Not video games, skateboarding, and television. It is the evil radio that must be controlled – for our future.

  19. knip, your integrity is
    knip, your integrity is uncompromised. You are “see”-worthy because your mind sees.

  20. Bukowski and the
    Bukowski and the Beats

    Bukowski is somewhat difficult to classify, therefore it is logical to incude him with the beats. Though far more well known for his poetry, his several novels and collections of short stories remain relevant. Though widely panned, my favorite Buk novel is FACTOTUM. I am a fan of the novel’s gritty realism and its potrayal of the young author on the skids. I feel Chinaski’s pain as he lives to drink and drinks to live- alternately drifting from one dispicable menial task to another. Perhaps the real legacy of Bukowski’s writing lies in its honesty, integity and utter lack of pretension.

  21. Now I want to read Factotum.
    Now I want to read Factotum. I just started Visions of Cody by Kerouac, but I’m putting Factotum next on my list. The funny thing is, I rarely ever heard anyone use the term “factotum” and suddenly, it seems like I’m hearing it everywhere. There was a recurring character in Burn Rate who was always referred to as the factotum, and last night I heard it on some detective show, and I have heard of the Bukowski book from time to time, but never read it.

  22. Just read thisI’d like to
    Just read this

    I’d like to comment that I wish I was there – I’d like to experience these three new looks at the Beats then and now.

    Can never get too much of a good thing (whether it’s kundalini or Bukowski)- and I wanna thank you, Levi for taking the time to share your impressions.

  23. judih, have you ever read
    judih, have you ever read Kerouac’s Visions of Cody? I’m reading it now and I really like it.

    One thing I know – I have to read this book patiently and take it in like an impressionist painting. There is no use rushing a Jack Kerouac book.

  24. I think Factotum has to be my
    I think Factotum has to be my favourite Buk book too. I remember working this shitty job in a warehouse, distributing examination papers. A grim environment with a grim workforce. I’d spend my breaks reading and recall working my way through Factotum. The feelings of kinship with Bukowski intensified by my surroundings.

  25. From an EnglishmanIt is life.
    From an Englishman

    It is life. The raw, daring search for what ever meaning that might exist out there. A mighty running lunge at the padded wall society has surrounded us with and a fearless rejection of the sedatives it hands us. Minds exposed without protection to universe so that the essence of pure being might be glimpsed or felt or tasted or known that we might begin to understand ourselves and each other.

    In this time of absolute comfort and safety, this beige sofa inside magnolia walls that is England, Beat, or at least its soul, has never been more necessary.

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