The term baby boomer has been stretched these days to include people born as late as even 1960, but when I was very young people said simply “post-war baby.” My brother was a “war baby,” which sounded considerably more dashing, while my birth date – August 13, 1946 -- came almost exactly nine months after my father’s return from a devastated Europe.
My parents had come from the rural Midwest, but I grew up in an affluent suburb where my father and the fathers of all my friends donned suits with starched white shirts and fedoras to board commuter trains to travel to their desks in the city. A boy seemed destined in those Eisenhower years to take The Road to Miltown and become The Organization Man, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The increasing prosperity that continued for twenty-five years after WWII and the dominant role the USA had come to play in the world allowed many Americans to feel life was good in spite of racism and the threat of nuclear holocaust.
A number of us middle-class laddies had been instilled with a love of reading with the encouragement of mothers who figured education would guarantee us our place in the grand American sun. I was among the many of my generation who proceeded to discover fascinating realms, both revealing and transgressive, in recent American writing. Though I got into everything from Gilgamesh to Updike, from Zhuangzi to Achebe, I do recall the unique excitement of finding in Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Corso a sensibility in which I felt at home (though I would not say, and I hope I do not hear for yet another time “Reading On the Road changed my life”). When The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 came out, I discovered further new directions. I read and reread Allen’s anthology, and wrote to the small presses listed in the back to buy texts that allowed even a suburban bourgeois to feel hip.
I was excited not merely by seeing voices in print that supported my views of art, vision, revolution, sex and love, and altered consciousness. I loved the return to the performative in poetry, to readings, with or without music, sometimes using the loping declamatory line of Ginsberg’s great long poems. I was charmed by the use of the personal in poetry – poems that mentioned friends as Sappho, the troubadours, and the Dadaists had done. The new poets’ pure joy of language seemed to me the very foundation of the aesthetic utterance, and my friends and I reenacted “Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway” while wandering suburban streets where few pedestrians passed. I couldn’t get over the Whitmanic catalogues in “Canticle for the Waterbirds,” the Wolfean rhapsodies in Kerouac, or the stately cadences of Robert Duncan.
At the age of twelve I read copies of Paul Krassner’s The Realist a subversive high school teacher risked firing by giving to my brother. I devoured Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself (1959) which included “The White Negro.” I listened to jazz and blues, but also to transparent red lp recordings from Fantasy in Berkeley featuring Ferlinghetti and Rexroth.
Paul Carroll’s Big Table originated in the banned issue featuring Kerouac and Burroughs (1959 again) of the Chicago Review. Carroll proceeded not only to put out four more issues that maintained the high standards of the first, but also hosted a poetry reading series at the Second City on Monday evenings which the owners must have figured would be a small loss even if audiences were few. I attended these readings as a teenager, hearing some great writers while sipping the over-priced non-alcoholic beverages that bought the customer a table for the evening. (I recall several years later feeling similarly uneasy in Greenwich Village’s Gaslight.)
I began my work in literary translation with a particular admiration for Kenneth Rexroth as an exemplar of a tradition at once scholarly and creative, erudite yet rebellious, descending from Ezra Pound and extending on to Paul Blackburn and, I felt, to me. Yet I have written almost nothing on the Beats; I always felt they were too intimate, too close to being me and my friends to analyze from the outside.
Later, during the 70s, I was involved with with Kush (Steven Kushner), Artful Goodtimes (Bontempi) and others in the Cloud House group in San Francisco which maintained a poetry gallery storefront and practiced guerrilla poetry techniques, principally street readings. Cloud House also sought out old North Beach poets, some fallen into SRO hotel isolation, for the mutual benefit of two generations of the hip. In this way I met people like Kirby Doyle, who had appeared in both Allen’s anthology and Carroll’s banned Chicago Review and had published his own collection Sapphobones. As the earth’s turned, he gave work to the Haight’s Communications Company and lived in communes in Marin County. Michael McClure said of him in memoriam, “Kirby was the gentle, human lion and pater familias of this scene [speaking of 1958] which was as close to magic as anyone could get.”
Bob Kaufman used to hang out at Cloud House as well, dear Bob Kaufman who eschewed publication and when young offered his poems in his original poet’s voice to drivers whose windows were, in those days without air-conditioning, open, whether their minds were or not. His vow of silence had ended by the time of Cloud House but he had little to say. He had, I suppose, become accustomed to spreading his beatitude silently. And there were others less celebrated. I recall an old amphetamine veteran who mumbled so that we often could not understand him, but we knew he had been through much, and understood.
We drove up to Elymakee, Gary Snyder’s place in the Sierras above Nevada City, twenty miles off the nearest paved road, but neighbor to Allen Ginsberg’s property and the tracts belonging to various gurus, devotees, and literary hangers-on, where we read under the full moon and a Tibetan flag.
The performance poetry scene is clear in its Beat lineage, and all of us who have striven to restore poetry to its traditional place in the air recognize what a dramatic shift it was in the 50s for poetry readings to appear apart from universities with their occasional literary stars and ongoing pin-striped faculty readings. In bars and cafes, book stores and living rooms, poetry became not only audible but also participatory. Everyone who had taken the trouble to chase after the words had a vision to relate. The open reading is an integral part of contemporary poetry series. The boorish sometimes arrive after the main reading is nearly done, and the slightly less boorish come on time but page through their own work while the featured reader is on. And all this surely happened during the 1950s as well. But everyone understands that we are all the children of the Beats; we remember how one after another, the practitioners of tight and intellectual verses like (Robert Lowell) were converted to free composition and to freer statement of what most needed to be said. It is difficult for younger people to whom the Beats are simply a literary chapter to realize the scorn and derision these writers attracted when they were themselves younger. Were they the last literary generation with the ability to shock?
To me, a most engaged partisan especially in my callow years, the Beats were the most recent team fielded by the Dionysians whose competition with the Apollonians had always to be refought on the printed page as well as in our minds. Perhaps I am a typical sexagenarian in that I find myself these days reading more old books than new, but the Beat writers I encountered in my prepubescence have never lost their savor. I don’t doubt that the weakness is mine if I have found so little later writing that for me says as much as well.
This reaction is not inevitable, though. I was visiting the home of a Southern California super-affluent cousin of my wife’s when the alienated teen-age son who secluded himself to listen to Kurt Cobain excused himself from going out for dinner by saying he had to do a report for English. Incommunicative as he had been, I though we might have a bit of common ground, and I asked his assigned topic. “Awww, it’s just some boring book my English teacher gave us,” he said. “What’s the title?” I pressed on. “Some stupid thing I’m supposed to read . . . it’s called On the Road.”