Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Legacy of the Beats

Numerous times, I have heard people say, “Reading On the Road changed my life.” They go on to tell of going hitch-hiking, taking LSD, or changing majors from sociology to comparative religion. What have these alterations to do with literature? Might not similar changes have followed a new lover, or perhaps just failing a course? Though I avoided that particular confessional declaration as a cliché, like many clichés, it bears some truth, including in my own case. As an adolescent, though I was reading the range of English poetry as well as great gulps of others, I admit to having read the Beats with a special attention and excitement. To some extent, this may have arisen from the sensational dope/sex straight and gay/madness revelations, but I was reacting also to the style of my own time, a novel style, one that has had a major influence on American writing since. In his “Notes for Howl and Other Poems” Allen Ginsberg refers to his poetry as “angelical ravings,” an expression that enigmatically but precisely expresses the specific distinguishing hip sensibility associated with Beat writing.

One must return to the scornful pop culture references to “beatniks” and dismissive reviews from not just the academy, but almost the entire literary establishment (which did extend beyond ivied walls), to realize the impact of Donald M. Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960 which created a new canon, a sort of canon of the anti-canonical. It is notorious that the more conventional major anthology New Poets of England and America edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson (with an introduction by Robert Frost), though it was published only three years earlier, had not a single author in common with Allen’s. Today nearly all of Allen’s poets have become accepted; many are featured in standard textbooks.

Norman Podhoretz’ claim in 1958 that the Beats embody a bitter anti-intellectualism – he even implicates them in the scourge of the fifties, the juvenile delinquent – now seems utterly misguided. [1] It is almost as though Podhoretz had developed his view from the reportage of Life Magazine rather than from the Beat literary output.

His notions, though, coincided with the attitudes of most Americans to whom the poetry and fiction that emerged from the Beat scene was far less striking than their reputed lifestyle: high on dope of various sorts, ecstatic with a range of sexual activities, many transgressive, yet claiming insight into the heart of things and holy visions of the sort that had gone out of style in the church only to reappear among artists reclaiming their vatic role. Indeed, in the Romantic view of these writers the semi-criminal and the beatified were likely to coincide. Clellon Holmes write in 1952, “the problem of modern life is essentially a spiritual problem; and that capacity for sudden wisdom which people who live hard and go far possess, are assets and bear watching.” [2]

Contrary to what Podhoretz had heard, the Beats gave traditional learning its due. Corso had read voraciously and then loitered about Harvard while Kerouac and Ginsberg were well-educated and took pains to establish their literary lineage. The counter-cultural tradition featured scholars like Rexroth, Blackburn, and Gary Snyder. Most of the Beats accepted professorial posts before their days were done, and for decades they have had their own university in Naropa. At best, the schema that balances the reserved academic against the Bohemian avant-garde polarity is reductive.

Furthermore, the field of poetry in the late forties was by no means homogeneous. Perhaps the most clearly “academic” group was associated with the New Criticism: the reactionary Southern Fugitives or Agrarians, Yvor Winters (apart from his earliest poems), and a host of associate professors with chapbooks. For the most part, these writers rejected ideals of sincerity and self-expression, preferring exacting formal values. To the New Critics who dominated literary studies in my own undergraduate years, authorial intention and affect were irrelevant, as the poem was a purely aesthetic object, valued for its formal qualities.

At the same time as apolitical or overtly reactionary views governed most small quarterlies and poetry journals, a rump faction remained of revolutionary more-or-less Marxist poets like Kenneth Fearing, Walter Lowenfels, and John Beecher who once sold stacks of books, then swelled enthusiastic anthologies, but who were already largely forgotten in the early days of McCarthyism.

The experimental and avant-garde traditions continued in Surrealism, Jackson MacLow, Armand Schwerner, and a wide range of others as well as in High Modernism itself which employed experimental techniques such as fragmentation and field composition. Pound and Eliot were still writing in this vein, and Zukofsky and Charles Olson after them.

Meanwhile the Confessional poets like Lowell and Berryman were setting out their grave self-revelations, albeit couched in tight rhyme and rhythm at first, and the New York poets associated with abstract expressionism wrote expressive and personal verses that could seem like spontaneous improvisation.

By far the most popular English poet of the era during which the Beats emerged was Dylan Thomas. If the only choices are to be rebellion or tradition, his position is problematic. His Collected Poems, 1934–1952, elicited immense critical praise and Philip Toynbee was not out of step with many others when his review in The Observer declared Thomas “the greatest living poet in the English language.” Thomas’ demanding craftsmanship had calculated in detail the impact of each extraordinary rhythm and every plosive consonant. He had served his apprenticeship writing for the Ministry of Information during the war and for the notoriously staid BBC afterward.

Yet this same writer was also associated with the New Apocalyptic group (though he disclaimed a connection) which owed much to Surrealism. He was a celebrity bad boy more famous for his drinking than his lyrics and known (like Hemingway) to millions who had never read a line of his work. Skilled at oral performance, he was a “personality” as much as an artist, at the time the only poet who could pack halls of every city and college town for readings.

In his oddly ambivalent essay “Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation” Kenneth Rexroth focuses on “two great dead juvenile delinquents . . . Charlie Parker and Dylan Thomas” whom he portrays as desperately trying to save themselves with gestures of pure art, both ultimately overcome by “the horror of the world.” [3] To him both are virtuosos left without hope when they found that pure manipulation of form could not enlighten or liberate. His epithet of “disengaged” is not only startling when applied to two such apparently passionate artists; it is, in fact, a condemnation of Beat poetry by its own midwife, the producer of the 1955 Gallery Six reading.

To simplify and avoid questions of definition, I shall take Rexroth at his word when he limits the Beats to Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Corso. [4] Far from being “know-nothing Bohemians,” the most likely descriptive category for this group is neo-Romantic. Their privileging of spontaneity, directness, sincerity, interest in the vernacular, sympathy for children and the underclass, looseness of form, visionary claims, revolutionary political views, even drug use; all are directly traceable to the circles around Wordsworth and Shelley. Corso actually managed to have his body buried in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery alongside Keats and Shelley. [5]

Kerouac was arch-Romantic in citing as “an American masterpiece,” “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw,” and his literary model a very long December 17, 1950 letter from Neal Cassady sometimes called the Joan Anderson letter. “I got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me, all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed . . . I remembered also Goethe’s admonition, well Goethe’s prophecy that the future literature of the West would be confessional in nature . . . Cassady also began his early youthful writing with attempts at slow, painstaking, and all-that-crap craft business, but got sick of it like I did, seeing it wasn’t getting out his guts and heart the way it felt coming out . . . We also did so much fast talking between the two of us, on tape recorders, way back in 1952, and listened to them so much, we both got the secret of LINGO in telling a tale and figured that was the only way to express the speed and tension and ecstatic tomfoolery of the age.” [6]

Ginsberg’s phrase “angelical ravings” combines two elements that might at first seem incompatible. He promises his poetry is “angelical,” renewing for his age the old prophetic role of the poet, dominant in all traditional and oral societies and recalled by medieval Christian apologists, then by the Romantics, Whitman, and fin-de-siècle aesthetes. The promise is that poetry provides access to a level of truth unavailable by other means. Whether the information the poet passes along is said to derive from a god or goddess, a muse, a shamanic journey, a vision, the unconscious, or another privileged source, it is thought to be revelation. All theories that literature can provide a unique storehouse of information must rest on some such claim of a specialized artistic insight.

The second term in Ginsberg’s formula “ravings” emphasizes the gap between the the hip and the square. To the Romantic the artist is alienated, misunderstood, likely to appear “crazy” to most members of society. Of course, in a sense the marginalization of art means that one must forego the conventional rewards of salary and prestige to practice poetry, and, since the Romantic era, artists have increasingly embraced an identity as counter-cultural.

The value of such a special perspective, varying from the norm, was recognized with the arrival of the twentieth century and Du Bois’ theory of double-consciousness. Even apart from issues of race, the last hundred years has seen the proliferation of a series of ironic aesthetic systems that likewise see phenomena both in the conventional way and in another: the camp, the kitsch, and the hip. Each assumes that most will decode the object in one way, but that some will have a more complex reaction, containing but not limited by that first concept.

The hip cultivated a sort of double consciousness in which any experience can seem both utterly inconsequential and profoundly meaningful. This simultaneously detached and deeply engaged regard for everyday reality is also called goofing (see Philip Whalen’s Goof Book) or, using Heinlein’s term, grokking (used prominently in Wolfe’s fundamentally derisive The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test).

Jack Kerouac’s story “The Time of the Geek” defines a sort of trinity of hoodlum, junkie, and poet. [7] Each of the three is a Romantic outsider, a nonconformist who has a vision that does not coincide with the received truth of his society. The poet Leon Levinsky – an Allen Ginsberg figure – relates his “mad description” of the Nickel-O, a Times Square amusement center where, at four in the morning, patrons enter solely to be “sheltered from the darkness.” They look “with that sightless stare that comes from too much horror.” “Everyone looks like a Zombie. . . seeking each other . . . but so stultified by their upbringings somehow, or by the disease of the age, that they can only stumble about and stare indignantly at one another.” “Everybody looks like a geek.” [8] The poet offers to demonstrate though his “subway experiment” that “the atomic disease has already made great headway.” [9] In the subway car Levinsky begins staring at a stuffy old gent through a hole in his newspaper and proceeds to tear long strips from the page with a look of serious concentration, galvanizing his fellow riders in self-consciousness with his “mad” display. The only ones who understand his gesture are the semi-enlightened ones: a child, a young student, a black man, and a lover (with a box of candy).

In an insane world, one with Auschwitz and Hiroshima, ultimately one that includes one’s own most perilous and peculiar human existence, the most significant move will appear to be mad. (Salvador Dalí commented, “There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.”) The straight people in the subway car seek refuge in comforting (but in the end illusory) received ideas, and fidget uncomfortably in the face of irregular behavior, while the hip vision, available only to a few, revels in a direct confrontation with reality, what Burroughs called in his introduction to Naked Lunch “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

The essence of the hip perspective is the claim, annoying to squares, that one has a more accurate “inside” perspective, allowing apprehension of a greater part of the truth than is vouchsafed to others, perhaps even the Whole Truth. This need not occur wholly in the realm of the page. When Aldous Huxley visits the World’s Largest Drugstore, a Rexall’s at Beverley and La Cienega, tripping on mescaline during the early 1950s, the everyday banality of the scene contrasts dramatically with the vision of his altered consciousness. Coming upon a “large, pale-blue” late-model American car, he sees neither a useful tool nor a desirable possession. “At the sight of it, I was suddenly overcome with enormous merriment. What complacency, what an absurd self-satisfaction beamed from those bulging surfaces of glossiest enamel! Man had created the thing in his own image – or rather in the image of his favorite character in fiction.” [10]

But the hip person’s double insight does not require such a popular target as the image of our most swollen consumerism, the American automobile, immense, wasteful, and showy. Gazing at a simple lawn chair, Huxley finds it “inexpressibly wonderful, wonderful to the point, almost, of being terrifying. And suddenly I had an inkling of what it must feel like to be mad.” [11] The disjunction between ordinary and altered consciousness registers as apparent madness, just as in the Beat formulae.
Ginsberg follows his Romantic forebears in the extravagance of his claims. To him the poet’s “angelical ravings” reveal “the secrets of individual imagination,” which are equivalent to “unconditioned Spirit” and thus to “the music of the Spheres.” “Who denies the music of the spheres denies poetry, denies man, & spits on Blake, Shelley, Christ, & Buddha.” [12] This assertion ignores the fact that language is itself entirely conventional, and just as there is no necessary link between signifier and signified, but only a code to be learned, similarly in literature the meaning of rhythms and sounds and associations does not arise spontaneously but rather is acquired through familiarity with a body of poetry. Literature’s codes are collectively constructed over time; the claim of utter self-revelation is an ancient rhetorical device.

The corpus of work identified with the Beats did establish a new pattern for the poetic sensibility. The hip persona is defined by the distance between his vision and the dominant world-view of his time, claiming a superior insight, a prophetic vision which, for all its power, is always out of step with the commonplaces of his age. Though it mythologizes the man in the street, in the end the hip attitude insists on art’s marginalization since only a small coterie can be privy to the secrets of life. Once Kerouac’s prophecy in Dharma Bums “I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans” came more-or-less true ten years later or so, the populist Haight-Ashbury wave left virtually no literary remains. Even among the rock songs, most of the best were old blues numbers.

The Beat claim to spontaneity and sincerity is in fact one of the oldest rhetorical devices. Kerouac advising “no pause to think of proper word,” “not ‘selectivity’ of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought, swimming in sea of English with no discipline” [13] or Ginsberg’s celebrated dictum from Chogyam Trungpa, “First thought, best thought,” are in fact identical to the after-dinner speaker who says “unaccustomed as I am to public speaking” or who pretends to discard the written speech to extemporize. Literary statements along these lines occur throughout poetry’s history. Wordsworth suggested something similar when he spoke of making poetry of “the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement,” though for him the poet has “a more comprehensive soul” than others. [14] When Sidney began his highly conventionalized Astrophel and Stella, saying “‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write,’” he was striking a pose.

What had seemed innovative in the early fifties now looks like another swing of the pendulum between classicism and romanticism. Social norms have altered so that virtually no content is forbidden or even capable of producing scandal. Furthermore, much of what had seemed not only startling in technique in the forties and fifties has now been assimilated. Not only has Kerouac’s image been used for advertisements for the Gap, On the Road is now assigned to reluctant high school classes, and footnotes bloom at the bottom of textbook reprintings of Howl. [15] The excitement with which my generation received Beat writing is unavailable today. Indeed, it seems to me that no new writing elicits a comparable response.

1.. According to his 1958 Partisan Review essay “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” Kerouac is handicapped by “his simple inability to express anything in words.” To him the Beat movement suffers from, of all things, “a pathetic poverty of feeling.” They are “young men who can’t think straight and so hate anyone who can.” The basic issue is whether one is “for or against intelligence itself.” His essay is so vituperative and wide of the mark that it reads today as pure bluster.
In fact many of the best more traditional poets such as Berryman, Roethke, and Lowell altered their practice and adopted the confessional content and the open forms of the counter-culture.

2. John Clellon Homes, “This is the Beat Generation,” New York Times Magazine, November 16, 1952.

3. See The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men, edited by Gene Feldman and Max Gartenberg (New York: Citadel) 1958, p. 323-338.

4. p. 12, The Sullen Art, interviews by David Ossman (New York: Corinth) 1963

5. Not only was Corso nominally Catholic, but the cemetery had been closed to new burials for fifty years, but Corso’s friends managed to make him an exception.

6. See Kerouac’s May 22, 1951 letter and his Paris Review interview, 1968. Kerouac complains about others having lost this marvelous letter, but a good piece of it may be read at http://staff.oswego.org/ephaneuf/web/Beat%20Miscellany/Cassady,%20Neal%20-%20Joan%20Anderson%20Letter.pdf

7. Apart from opium users Coleridge, Shelley, de Quincey, and Crabbe, great jazz artists had sanctified the sensitive heroin addict. See also the glorified hoodlum of Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make who, upon hearing his death sentence tells the judge “’I knew I’d never get to be twenty-one anyhow’ – and snapped his bubble-gum.” (p. 22 of the 1961 Contact edition). Even more remarkable is Norman Mailer’s “existential” justification in “The White Negro” for “two strong eighteen-year-old hoodlums” who conspire “to beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper.”

8. Page 87-88, The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men, edited by Gene Feldman and Max Gartenberg (New York: Citadel) 1958.
The meaning of geek that borders nerd has eclipsed the weird old usage Kerouac intended. Though in 1965 Dylan used the carnival meaning in "Highway 61 Revisited," it now requires a footnote to inform readers that a geek was a sort of degraded “wild man” who opened a freak show, biting the head off live chickens. As Leslie Fiedler noted in Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self, “But ANYONE, merely by altering consciousness can become a Geek, become for others the Freak he has always felt him- self to be.” (346)

9. The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men, p. 93.

10. Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (New York and Evanston: Harper Colophon Edition, 1963), p. 59-60.

11. The Doors of Perception, p. 54

12. Allen Ginsberg, “Notes for Howl and Other Poems,” in The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, edited by Donald M. Allen, 417.

13. From “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” Black Mountain Review 1957.

14. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.”

15. A teen-age fan of Kurt Cobain who had told me that he was forced to read “some boring book” by his English teacher eventually revealed that the title was On the Road. His teacher doubtless had his own enthusiasm and may have puzzled over the students’ indifference.


  1. hi. excellent article! I am currently in final year of my English literature degree and upon attempting a 3000 word essay entitled, 'Describe the contribution of the beat movement to development in American poetry,' I can across your piece, I was wondering if you could give me any suggestions? Thanks

    1. Dear Sinead,
      Thanks for the kind word. I am not really an expert in this area. Unfamiliar with the last few decades of critical writing, I can't really suggest bibliography. Still I am pleased to see that the appeal of the Beats is reaching a new generation. Best of luck in your studies!