Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs—all the men— Herbert Huncke, Neal Cassady, Lucien Carr, the forerunners of the 1960s hippie culture, the Beat Movement extraordinaire, they get all the credit for the post-World War II American literary upheaval.
In my twenties, I carried in my back pocket a dog-eared copy of On the Road. I remember my one friend bursting into the little study room at Wright State University-Lake Campus shouting, you’ve got to hear this, this is amazing! And he read, “…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 roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” I cocked my head quizzically. Yeah, I’ve read that, I had lied.
I wanted to be a writer back then, but didn’t know writing meant reading. I didn’t understand or acknowledge that connection, and in my twenties acted smarter than I really was. I purchased On the Road from a Goodwill, stuck the used paperback in my back pocket, and summarily forgot about it. I never actually read the thing until I found my thirties.
In my thirties too I discovered Ginsberg’s 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 was known for stripping during his performances of Howl. And probably too, the public inauguration of the beat movement with the Howl obscenity trial in 1957.
Burroughs who was mad, who murdered his mother, who wrote Naked Lunch: “Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk?” Most people who read Naked Lunch are teenage boys, refuse to admit the novel as real literature but still describe the experience as an embarrassing liberation, as a mad trip, an experiment in juvenile vulgarity.
Huncke disdained Kerouac and invented the term “beat.” Cassady never actually wrote anything complete except a few letters. Carr got a real job—a desk editor at UPI, and never wrote art himself. Yet these are the men we credit for the beat movement—a counterculture to the suburban Levittowns, the McCarthy communist witch hunts, the United States’ WWII PTSD.
The beat movement’s public face forefronts vulnerable masculinity—watch Kerouac suffer on the Steve Allen Show or watch him drunk on the William Buckeley Show. Both television interviews demonstrate Kerouac’s pensiveness, his inability to fit in.
However, few of these men actually wrote, yet we are continually fascinated by their so-called rebellious lifestyle, their unabashed tribute to emotionality during a time when Cornet pumped out instructional films such as “Control Your Emotions,” and The Mental Health Board’s “The Angry Boy.” The Beat’s writing was emotional and unabashed and raw, the country’s seething parts underneath the WWII PTSD controlled facade. And hyped.
Kerouac’s haiku, for example, is oft praised.
In the old house
Missing a kick
at the icebox door
It closes anyways.
Kerouac called these “Pops.” And though stark and beautiful, nothing that hasn’t been done before, a throwback to the Imagists a generation earlier. By 1962 when William Carlos Williams penned “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow,” Williams was already 79 years old, almost dead. Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, Hulme, Amy Lowell, John Gould Fletcher, James Joyce. Also in 1962, when Williams penned a note to his wife turned poem:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
They were delicious
and so cold
It was almost like Williams was apologizing to the Beats—you haven’t done anything new yet, I ate your plums, you poems and words. Keep trying. Keep trying to make something new.
Whitman’s “Song of Myself” echoes in Ginsberg’s “Howl” long lines with no ordered rhyme scheme, the occasional bit of repetition. The poems are often compared. And Ginsberg probably stole from Whitman anyway. “Howl’s” section I, line 73 reads, “and who therefore ran through the icy streets obsessed with a sudden flash of the alchemy of the use of the ellipse the catalog the meter and the vibrating plane. Compared to “Song of Myself” lines 158, 159: “What living and buried speech is always vibrating here… what howls restrained by decorum.” Let’s not even bother discuss the copious amounts of sex found in both “Howl” and Leaves of Grass.
I do not suggest here that the Beats weren’t brilliant and didn’t insert an imprint onto our society, but it has been a pop culture, a kitsch, a veneer of style without much substance. Today, hipster beards abound, but our beards look nothing like Ginsberg’s salt and pepper and too much like Maynard G. Krebs. Look, for example, how far Burrough’s talking ass has infiltrated. Mark Dery in The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink writes, “Jim Carey, whose signature gag is ventriloquizing his butt […] warns people away from the toxic fallout of his trips to the bathroom.” Even the Beat’s sophisticated yet grotesque satire is not new. Dery traces scatology one generation before the Beats to a French Philosopher.
The Beat Movement’s men were self-important, self-touting, self-bragging hucksters—Carr went to jail, Huncke a two-bit New York City thief. And most of them held on to deep-seeded mother issues. Ginsberg obsessed over his mother in Kaddish, and Joyce Johnson, Kerouac’s girlfriend at one point, a blind date set up by Ginsberg, she described Kerouac’s relationship with his mother as “overly intense.”
Johnson a Beat author in her own right though: “Being in the middle of this new beat movement, it was the beginning of a big cultural shift, and being right there, that was an incredible experience,” said Johnson in a 2007 Guardian interview. Johnson published Come and Join the Dance, Bad Connections, In the Night Café, What Lisa Knew, Minor Characters, Door Wide Open, Missing Men, The Voice is All. She’s published in Harper’s Bazaar, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, won a National Book Critics Circle Award, an O. Henry Award, a NEA grant, and taught for years at Columbia’s MFA.
Johnson wasn’t the only woman of the Beat Movement, the most well-known probably Diane di Prima: poet, artist, memoirist, playwright, social justice activist, teacher with almost four dozen books by her hand, much of work translated into more than twenty languages. And look at Prima’s poetry:
you are my bread
and the hairline
of my bones
you are almost the sea
you are not stone
or molten sound
you have no hands
this kind of bird flies backward
and this love
breaks on a windowpane
where no light talks
this is not time for crossing tongues
(the and here
turned you with his toe
and you will
unspent and underground
The Window resonates, doesn’t complain, does not speak of bravado but is silent and quite with sweep and heft, the lines stripped to the bony essence.
Elise Cowan, Ginsberg’s experimentation with heterosexuality, wrote poetry in loose leaf notebooks, hundreds upon hundreds of poems. Out of embarrassment and shame, her parents’ neighbors burned much of Cowan’s work. And her parents, uncomfortable with the ideas of sexuality expressed within Cowan’s poetry, shamed by the very fact she even wrote poetry, her parents were happy the poetry was burned. We are left with a single notebook, recently published in 2012, edited and commented upon Tony Trigillio. And Trigillio only managed this much with clandestine operations, Cowan’s single notebook hoarded and hidden by another man—Leo Skir. Trigillio’s efforts are clouded in of themselves though. Trigillio presents defacto assumptions that Cowan is just exactly like the ghost of Dickenson because Cowan wrote in notebooks, her poetry was published posthumously, and because of all the sex too of course, and look how short Cowan’s poems are, just like Dickenson.
Yet, perhaps Cowan resembles more Pound. For example, Pound’s 14-word poem “In a Station of the Metro”:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
And Cowan’s poem fragment “Death”:
Death I’m coming
Wait for me
I know you’re be
at the subway station’
Or more simply Cowan simply resembles only herself.
Not all Beat artists, of course, were confined to the written word. Jay DeFeo, for example obsessed over a painting entitled “The Rose.” From 1958 to 1966 she labored in quiet, adding and removing layers of mica infused oil paints. Work only stopped on “The Rose” when she and her husband were evicted from their apartment. The painting/sculpture had to be removed with a forklift; it weighed over a ton and a hole had to be cut through the studio wall (Ferrell). In 1989 she died of lung cancer at the age of sixty. For years “The Rose” was hidden away from public view, stuck in a conference room at the San Francisco Art Institute and then they built a wall, obscuring and hiding DeFeo’s work altogether.
Wally Hedrick, her husband, writes of her obsession: “It [The Rose] was driving her crazy. She would line up these radiating lines and get them where she wanted them and would come back the next day and go berserk. She fought this by working harder and drinking a quart of Christian Brothers brandy a day and smoking two to three packs of Gauloises. It was like a lubricant. Her hands would be covered with white lead. It killed her.” Not until 1994 was “The Rose” excavated, recovered, restored and brought to the Whitney Museum of American Art.
DeFeo and “The Rose” seem to me embody the Beat Movement: overlooked and forgot, ignored for all the hype that were the men.