America in the 1950s was an illicit liaison waiting to happen. Barely repressed sexuality, numbing family values and existential brain spasms glutted the corridors of our air-conditioned nightmare in anticipation of the scruffiest saviors this country would ever see, much less imagine: the Beats.
In 1953, when poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti started City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, the literary landscape was dominated by an establishment that ignored the poetic genius of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky, and actively shut out D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller in favor of better-behaved novelists. Three years later, when Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the fourth in City Lights Books’ Pocket Poets Series, all hell broke loose.
The San Francisco Police and U.S. Customs seizure of Howl on the grounds of obscenity in 1957, the long court battle that followed and the ultimate vindication of the book that, in the judge’s decision, “ends in a plea for holy living,” set the stage for the outpouring that ensued. City Lights soon published such seminal works as Gregory Corso’s brilliant Gasoline, Ginsberg’s devastating Kaddish, the first edition of Jack Kerouac’s Book of Dreams, Frank O’Hara’s groundbreaking Lunch Poems and Bob Kaufman’s surreal masterpiece, Golden Sardine.
Meanwhile, a small press and independent magazine revolution was in full swing. Beat novelists William Burroughs (Naked Lunch) and Jack Kerouac (On the Road) launched major careers with works that disrupted prose conventions and seriously questioned the philosophical-spiritual foundations of American culture.
And today, the beat goes on. As we approach City Lights Bookshop’s 50th anniversary, with most of the central figures (Burroughs, Corso, Ginsberg, Kaufman, Kerouac) already in nirvana, our fascination with the Beats seems, if anything, to be growing. Kerouac’s original scroll manuscript for On the Road fetched $2.4 million at Christie’s auction in May, and sales of the present Viking-Penguin edition continue to surge, reaching 110,000 to 130,000 copies a year.
Here are a few quick takes on Beat books that have appeared in the past year, two involving memoirs and two being expanded reissues, with, to start off, an anthology of work by a writer not usually grouped with the celestial barbarians.
Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings
of Terry Southern, 1950-1995
edited by Nile Southern and Josh Alan Friedman
Grove Press, $25, 264 pp.
The man who wrote Easy Rider with Dennis Hopper and Dr. Strangelove with Stanley Kubrick was much more than a darkly cynical screenwriter. Terry Southern (1924-1995) was already turning over the tombstones of American hypocrisy — exposing the creepy-crawlies underneath — by the time the Beats got noticed by the San Francisco police and Time magazine. In a way, Southern was the Ur-Beat personified, an urban anarchist with a foul-mouthed, caustic sensibility ready to take on straight-laced doubletalk at the drop of a pair of panties. Groping America’s timid morality in the backseat of a cab ride through our postwar desolation, he authored some of the most direct assaults on prudery and prurience to ever grace the secret shelves of pornographers’ dens from Paris to New York to wherever libido raised its purple head.
Now Dig This gives us a selection of Southern, the infamous perpetrator of such novels as The Magic Christian, Candy and Blue Movie, at his horny, irreverent best. From short stories to letters to movie-insider pieces to new journalism and biographical sketches, the collection takes us on a rocky ride through the cult of materialism’s worst (and best) moments. “Heavy Put-Away,” the leadoff tale, has a Magic Christian despicableness about “getting the money” that should give any of our exploited comrades pause — as in “Don’t touch that wad!” In a section called “Strolls Down Memory Lane,” Southern remembers Burroughs, O’Hara and Abbie Hoffman, among illustrious others, with a fondness that never spills over into carelessness.
By the time we’ve read his letters to Ms. magazine, Lenny Bruce, the National Lampoon and George Plimpton, we’re sure that here’s at least one troublemaker who won’t bend over and spread ’em. As Southern says in a discussion of Candy, his famous unbridled heroine who seems to be a 20th century updating of Sade’s Juliette, “all the guys wanted to fuck her, and the girls wanted to be her.” How times have changed … or have they?
The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and
Corso in Paris, 1958-1963
Grove Press, $25, 294 pp.
Though the Beats germinated in the bitter soil of post-World War II America — penning their most famous odes and odysseys in response to the desolation of Greyhound terminals, flophouses, bars and sundown highways across this vast blasted land of ours — they could always find peace and solace abroad. Legends of their adventures in Mexico City, Morocco, India and Japan fueled the wanderlust of their contemporaries and that of the ’60s hippies who devoured their books. But one of the favorite overseas retreats of Burroughs, Corso, Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, Peter Orlovsky, Harold Norse and countless other more-or-less temporary American expatriates was Paris. For the principal figures, in particular, home was the so-called Beat Hotel at 9, rue Git-le-Coeur (rough translation: “the heart’s repose”).
British fellow-traveler Barry Miles, author of acclaimed books on Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac (and Paul McCartney), evokes the six-year stretch of the Beat Hotel’s glory, its comings and goings, its madnesses and sympathies, in this new release from Grove Press (founded by Barney Rossett in 1951 and long the publisher of daring literature from Burroughs to Sade to Samuel Beckett to Jean Genet to Kathy Acker).
The Beat Hotel, according to Miles, was one of those “places where artists and poets lived, addresses mentioned in poems, glimpsed in blurred avant-garde movies, used as the titles of huge dripping abstract paintings, the care-of addresses on mimeographed poetry magazines, scribbled suggestions for lodging at which to stay if you ever made it out of Britain,” or Mobile or wherever else you might be stuck.
Miles’ book is beautifully written and thoroughly researched. It captures the aura of never-again days and nights in which the Beat wanderers accosted their French literary heroes, basked in the glow of Gallic permissiveness and pondered the gathering storm of their notoriety back home.
Book of Dreams
City Lights Books, $17.95, 340 pp.
One of the early volumes from City Lights Books, Book of Dreams is a door into the unconscious of one of American literature’s truly mythical figures. When it first appeared in 1961, it was a relatively small text by a man renowned for sprawling works of narrative fiction. By that time, Kerouac had already published The Town and the City, On the Road, The Subterraneans, The Dharma Bums, Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy and Tristessa, as well as a few collections of poetry. The dream book seemed like a slighter side project, a detour from his main purpose. But that was because Ferlinghetti “made a selection of a little more than half of the entries or episodes to reduce the manuscript to a size that the small press could manage,” explains James Brook, the editor of the new, complete version.
“Dreams must be recorded as they come, spontaneously,” wrote Kerouac about this project. His courage and Whitmanesque embrace of everything around and inside of himself extended even to these shards of his psyche, his personal unknown. As he wrote in the preface to the ’61 edition: “Book of Dreams was the easiest book to write — When I woke up from my sleep I just lay there looking at the pictures that were fading slowly like in a movie fadeout into the recesses of my subconscious mind — As soon (one minute or so) as I had assembled them together with any earlier dreams of the evening I could catch, like fish in a deep pool, I got my weary bones out of bed & through eyes swollen with sleep swiftly scribbled in pencil in my little dream notebook till I had exhausted every rememberable item — I wrote nonstop so that the subconscious could speak for itself in its own form, that is, uninterruptedly flowing & rippling …”
The Beat bard of prose, master of the extended poetic bravura solo (wherein the narrative pauses for his jazz-inspired “digressions,” actually sublime riffs of language), here opens his innermost heart to all who’ll listen:
“TWO BIRDS START FIGHTING AT MY EAR on Bridge Street over the river, they increase their fury and are screaming and biting and scratching with a furious eerie lunacy — they’ll end up picking my brains thru my ear.”
Recollections of My Life
as a Woman (The New York Years)
Diane di Prima
Viking, $29.95, 424 pp.
It can’t be admitted often enough that the Beats were phallocrats when it came to women. And when it came to women Beat writers, there weren’t many who made the inner circle (the avant of the garde, so to speak). One who did, and more than held her own, was Diane di Prima. As a poet, she produced (and continues to produce) a range of texts that upped the ante each time out: from Dinners and Nightmares, New Handbook of Heaven, Revolutionary Letters and The Calculus of Variation to the Loba series, The Mysteries of Vision and The Mask is the Path of a Star, among many other works.
The Beat revolution dovetailed into a general opening up of sexual relationships that ’50s America sorely needed. But hipster lingo was just a bohemian translation of the sexual attitudes of the time: “scoring,” “chicks” and keeping your “cool,” even when it came to matters of the heart. Di Prima’s account, a follow-up to her earlier Memoirs of a Beatnik, heads right for this territory with an honesty and candor that are its main strengths.
Among other loves and obsessions, she chronicles her ongoing affair with one of the principal New York poets, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and manages to assess it without egocentricity: “Roi and I also came back together, but warily and with a difference. Signaling through the smoke of our separate battles (‘I woman, you Black.’ We are both being broken against something we cannot name.) Sometimes a gesture, a word got through, but not often. We loved the ghosts of each other, who we might have been.”
Then there were woman-to-woman relationships that charted a whole new world of caring and consciousness. As di Prima describes them, “Which had not previously been my way at all. First serious love affair; serious lesbian love affair. It felt good. To care that someone would be there when you got back, would come over at six for supper, would stay the night. Would fly to the door as soon as you rang the bell. That you didn’t have to be ‘cool’ and not ask her was she coming over, would she stay.”
Through the hanging out, music, drugs, poetry readings, small magazines, busts and downers, di Prima manages to keep her head, raise children (by herself), write and publish beautiful work, and move to a more spiritual plane of woman-lore, Zen and teaching. Recollections is an inspiring, future-oriented read.
San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets
edited by David Meltzer
City Lights Books, $19.95, 370 pp.
The land of the Beat, the city by the Bay, has been home to many a great poet in the past 50 years. But its significance in the lore of beatitude is unequaled by any other metropolis, from City Lights Bookshop and its Journal for the Protection of All Beings to the Hotel Wentley, site of John Weiners’ lyrical sufferings, to its jazz, its gay scenes, its coffeehouses and Chinatown.
One of the editors of the Journal for the Protection of All Beings, poet David Meltzer, in 1971 published The San Francisco Poets, a book of interviews with five poets from the Beat and post-Beat years: Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, William Everson and Lew Welch. The present updated volume adds eight names to the project: Diane di Prima, Jack Hirschman, Joanne Kyger, Philip Lamantia, Jack Micheline, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Meltzer himself. They fit together because of their overall poetic concerns and their stances toward the world.
For instance, Kyger, McClure, Snyder, Welch and Whalen share an interest in Zen that carries over into their approaches to poetic composition. Rexroth, Ferlinghetti and Everson are aesthetic-philosophical prime movers, each taking a critical look at the world that spawned them.
San Francisco Beat will inspire readers with its histories, anecdotes, investigations and poetic discourses. It will also get us asking questions, some of the same ones the Beats asked in the ’50s.
In Meltzer’s words, “The dissident egalitarian poetry of the postwar fifties … provoked and allowed an ongoing permission. All of the poets herein are unique exemplars of their devotions, passions, intelligence and questing spirits.”
Dig it.George Tysh is Metro Times’ arts editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org