By Ed Meek
The Beats came before the ’60s, the decade of civil rights protests, women’s rights, the anti-war movement, and the civil strife that included riots and assassinations.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti celebrates his 100th birthday in four days. It must be hard even for him to believe he outlived all his Beat writer contemporaries, many of whom he published through the press he ran out of his now famous landmark, the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. For art to matter, there must be two factors. One, of course, is the talent of the artists. But there must also be readers and institutions who support authors. Ferlinghetti was more important as a promoter and publisher of Beat poetry than as an artist. The era of Beat poetry, which began in the’40s following World War 2 and flowered in the ’50s, was the last period when poetry flourished in America — it became part of the national culture, its rebellious vision crossing over into fiction, movies, politics, and lifestyles. Today, we see a similar pattern, with poetry branching out into music and rap, spoken word and performance.
There are clips online of Jack Kerouac appearing on late night talk host Steve Allen’s television show, reciting his lyrical prose to jazz piano accompaniment. Kerouac, like Ginsberg, wrote in stream of consciousness — a free flowing, associative opening up of the mind. It was a ‘flinging open the doors’ as their precursor Walt Whitman put it, an approach that also recalled the unrhymed, long lines, based on alliteration and rhythm (or beat), found in Anglo Saxon poetry. Ironically, Ferlinghetti’s take on this cry for freedom was to emphasize its accessibility, perhaps because he did not have the level of talent of Ginsberg or Kerouac.
Beat writing departed, radically, from the tightly written, economical, highly controlled prose and poetry of modernists such as Hemingway and William Carlos Williams and T.S. Eliot. The beats were the forerunners of the ‘anything goes’ openness of the ’60s: the hippies, the drug culture exemplified by William S. Burroughs, the songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen as well as the novels of Ken Kesey and the gonzo journalism of Hunter Thompson as well as the new journalism of Tom Wolfe, the rebellion chic of James Dean and Marlon Brando and the changing attitudes toward homosexuality following Ginsberg’s very public embrace of his sexual identity. You can also draw a connection between the beats and the current popularity of performance poetry.
Here is an excerpt from a poem by Ferlinghetti entitled “Baseball Canto”:
When the San Francisco Giants take the field
and everybody stands up for the National Anthem,
with some Irish tenor’s voice piped over the loudspeakers,
with all the players struck dead in their places
and the white umpires like Irish cops in their black suits and little
black caps pressed over their hearts,
Standing straight and still like at some funeral of a blarney bartender,
and all facing east,
as if expecting some Great White Hope or the Founding Fathers to
appear on the horizon like 1066 or 1776.
But Willie Mays appears instead,
in the bottom of the first,
and a roar goes up as he clouts the first one into the sun and takes
off, like a forerunner from Thebes.
You can see a kind of inclusiveness working here, an open-heartedness an attempt to speak to Americans as a whole via a a common experience. But there isn’t much of interest going on in the poem’s language,. Not a lot of compelling invention at work. It works pretty well as a paragraph.
Here is a quotation from Kerouac’s novel On the Road:
“[…]the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
Here the author expresses a way to live, a kind of go-for-the-gusto, live all the way up, burn the candle at both ends. Those who are able to do so, for Kerouac, inspire a kind of reverence. We are called on to emulate the sway of “the mad ones.” For him, this adolescent spirit of embracing the edge is embodied in a character named Dean Moriarty, who was based on his friend Neal Cassidy, who died a year before Kerouac at the age of 41. (He was found beside train tracks in a coma and died hours later. Kerouac died in 1969 at the ripe old age of 47 of a hemorrhage, no doubt the result of years of heavy drinking.)
Kerouac called on young Americans (males, not females) to hop in their cars or jump on trains or stick out their thumbs and travel across the country. It was a way to escape the post-World-War-Two stultification of the suburbs, to break out of the conformity of the ’50s, at time when the “Greatest Generation” were feeling pretty complacent, pretty happy with themselves for winning the war and saving the world. Despite the limitations of his vision, Kerouac was a gifted, at times poetic, writer who knows how to make effective use repetition and metaphor.
Ginsberg was the most talented of the Beats. Drawing from Whitman, he used long lines in order to “extend the breath.” He drew on a technique called parataxis — joining unlikely combinations of words and phrases together to create new meanings. And, although he embraced the stream-of-consciousness technique, he edited his work.
From the famous beginning of Howl:
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,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz…
Ginsberg captures the anxieties of his generation in the same way that F. Scott Fitzgerald probed the insecurities of the ’20s in The Great Gatsby. He mythologizes his peers and their actions via a jazz overlay that makes stimulating use of powerful imagery and metaphor. It’s quotable, yet much denser than everyday prose. The poem was performed in 1955 and published in 1956 by Ferlinghetti. He and Ginsberg were both arrested on obscenity charges. The case went to court and, with the help of the ACLU, the charges were dismissed.
It’s important to note that the Beats came before the ’60s, the decade of civil rights protests, women’s rights, the anti-war movement, and the civil strife that included riots and assassinations.
“Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist,” thundered Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay “Self-Reliance.” The Beats made nonconformity popular. As such, they set the stage for the ’60s. Dylan released his song “Masters of War” in 1963 and it still resonates.
Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul
Soul — it’s a (nonconformist?) word we might want to reclaim as Ferlinghetti celebrates his centennial year on our fragile blue planet in our unrepresentative capitalist democracy as we wonder how the hell we got to where we are today.
Ed Meek is the author of Spy Pond and What We Love. A collection of his short stories, Luck, came out in May. WBUR’s Cognoscenti featured his poems during poetry month this year.