November 10th, 2000

The Beat Poets

Imagine. Your nation has just emerged triumphant from the most devastating global conflict known to mankind. Might has been matched by right as you’ve vanquished the Nazis, liberating the concentration camps and subdued the Japanese threat in the East. While most of the planet lies in ruins, your nation’s economy is booming. You’re young, American and facing a tremendous upsurge in your cultural and material fortunes that will be envy of the rest of the mankind. You’d be basically pretty happy, right?

Not if you’re a bunch of spoiled, druggy dropouts hanging around campus at Columbia in 1945. The beat poets, led by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were not “beat” in the sense of upbeat but “beat”, as in “beat-up”, done for. In The Town And The City (1950) Jack Kerouac looks upon his fellow American citizens and surmises that “everyone is dead, locked up inside the sad psychoses of themselves”. Sorry, Jack, you mean actually dead? Well, er, no, but existentially dead, y’know, man? Listen, moron, it was 1945, if unlike 30 million Russians you weren’t actually dead that was worth at least a couple of cheers, don’t you think?

Though zillions of miles from any danger zone, the beat poets felt traumatised by the impact of war, especially its atomic dimension. Allen Ginsberg lamely explained that the reason he and his little “generation of furtives” took to drugs, ranging from Benzedrine to heroin (for which they all turned to lives of crime, either robbing drugs or harbouring stolen goods for scum like beat poet affiliate Herbert Huncke) was because they were “gripped by a fear of radiation sickness”. Needless to say, the courts of the day weren’t sympathetic to that line. It might be laudable if these poets recognised and empathised with the anguish of victims of global oppression but they seemed oblivious to everything except their own autobiographies. The whining arrogance of Ginsberg’s Howl still rankles. “I have seen 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” (I hope the “negroes” beat the shit out of them). Self-indulgent, undisciplined, slaves to their own cravings, vague about the source of their perceived woes they forged a “new vision” of art in which they were “free” of any obligation to curb their worst habits or excesses. Grab a toilet roll, upturn a bucket to tap out a rhythm on and you were a beat poet.

This being America, and these guys being so pathetic they couldn’t even hack it in this most privileged of places, they hit the road. C’mon, guys, let’s go to Mexico. Hey, why confront and come to terms with society when you can run away from it? Justified by the woolliest talk of “breaking through” to “something spiritual” on the “other side”, they set out with dreams of meeting their own, distorted version of “real” people, finding a place “where the Indians are seven feet tall and eat cocaine on the mountainside”.

Of course, no such place exists and On The Road is in fact about as exciting a read as “Memoirs Of An RAC Officer”, which would benefit from mucho editing. Except, first rule of beat, man, no blue pen. It’s argued that the beat poets were 20th century originals, delineating out on left field the margins of disaffection that would guide the permissive culture of the Sixties. But they were not original. All of their methods – Burroughs’s cut-up technique, spontaneous writing – had been conceived and executed with more dazzling panache by the Dadaists back in 1916-20.

So what are we left with? Cod-Romantic guff about being “real”, about people who “never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous Roman yellow candles exploding like spiders across the stars” (On The Road). PG Wodehouse brilliantly parodied this “new” school of literature 40 years earlier in “Carry On Jeeves”. Bertie Wooster’s American friend “Rocky” Todd produces the following:

Be! Be!

The past is dead, Tomorrow is not born.

Be today! Today!

Be with every nerve, With every fibre, With every drop of your red blood!

Be! Be!

For this, Rocky gets paid $100 and stays in bed till four in the afternoon for over a month. That’s the beat poets in a nutshell.

Their own lives were less than unimpeachable. Subconsciously enacting the misogyny among the “best minds” of his generation , Burroughs accidentally shot his wife to death and ended his years as an extra in U2 videos. Kerouac became a drunk and, in the Sixties, a right wing bigot. Ginsberg, the subtext of whose entire output was “Where is my man” lived on to spout drivel such as “It’s Nation Time”. He was better behaved but is justly ignored by all but a few thousand old hippies who, incapable either of humour or of keeping pace with the 20th century infest Ginsberg websites with their own priceless, “free-form” bilge. These poncho-clad, saucer-eyed fuckheads are Beat’s true legacy.

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