Beat has all kinds of connotations ostensibly. Keep the beat, rhythmically, musically, beats to a bar. But also in the sense of to prevail, as in beat you, beat it, you at the receiving end are beaten. There is something of both senses going on with that American literary phenomenon of the ‘50s and ‘60s the Beats.
A.Robert Lee in his impressive survey and retrospective of The Beats, pays attention to such questions. As Lee points out it was Herbert Huncke, Beat fellow traveller, who ‘first famously passed on the word ‘beat’ as meaning beaten-down, life met and embodied at degree-zero’ (p6) although to take it a step further Jack Kerouac, brought up Catholic, ‘blended this notion of beat seen from the bottom tier into beatific, beatus, a spiritualised take on existence.’ (p6) The word beat would eventually morph into beatnik, hip and hippy, changes that Kerouac among others, weren’t happy to be on board with.
Where did Beat come from? As Amiri Baraka, one time Beat affiliate, said,
‘Beat came out of the whole dead Eisenhower period, the whole of the McCarthy era, the Eisenhower blandness, the whole reactionary period of the 50s.’ (p8)
Lee is adept at tracking the emergence of what became something of a movement. John Clellon Holmes was in early with ‘This is the Beat Generation’, a ‘New York Times’ column of 1952. But it was Kerouac who took up most the manifesto like claims for this literary style, eg in ‘About the Beat Generation’ (1958) which appeared in ‘Esquire’ magazine, ‘that was a vision that we had, John Clellan Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way’ (p7).
Lee provides a pretty methodical survey of this singular movement, and lays it out more or less chronologically. There are at least 3 ur texts for The Beats, arriving at the end of the ‘50s, these being Ginsberg Howl (City Lights 56), Kerouac’s On the Road (Viking 57) and William Burroughs Naked Lunch (Olympia Press, Paris 59), Ginsberg and Burroughs both facing trial for obscenity. Burroughs credited Kerouac with that title,- ‘The title means exactly what the words say: NAKED lunch – a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork’ (p88), presumably nothing to do with O’Hara’s ‘lunch poems’.
Howl achieved a good amount of notoriety from being included in Donald Allen’s epochal anthology The New American Poetry (1960), although it has to be said that The Beats were not just about poetry, part III given over to Kerouac (‘Mexico City Blues’), Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s partner. ‘Notes for Howl’ is among the poetics statements. The opening words of Howl still resonate, though Ginsberg conceded to some amount of irony, riffed on the base word ‘who’,-
‘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 (Allen p182)’
This is, if you like, pure Beat, after all these years, Ginsberg advocating ‘first thought best thought’ with his indebtedness to a surprising concoction of Whitman, Blake, Buddhism and Jewish mysticism, and perhaps also an amount of the homosocial. Ginsberg throughout was a mainstay of the movement, travelling widely, and often at the centre of things.
The other mainstays are Kerouac and Burroughs. A flavour of Kerouac can be grasped from ‘Mexico City Blues’ of which first stanza 113th chorus proceeds,-
Got up and dressed up
and went out & got laid
Then died and got buried
in a coffin in the grave,
Yet everything is perfect,
Because it is empty,
Because it is perfect
Because it’s not even happening. (Allen p168)
This captures some of Kerouac’s flair and one could find long roaming sentences in On the Road or Doctor Sax etc. Capote famously quipped of Kerouac that he didn’t write, he typed. But Kerouac provided a few procedural accounts of his practice, including ‘Essentials of Spontaneous Prose’ (1953). The main criticism against some of this work is that it lacks plot development; though Kerouac expressed interest in doing a family saga along the lines of a Proust ‘on the run, a running Proust’ (p66; letter to Viking Press 1955), with some inspiration from the Forsyte Saga. Kerouac had problems with drug and alcohol misuse, which resulted in, for instance, his writing The Subterraneans in a three day bout under the influence of Benzedrine (p76). Some maintain nonetheless, like Lee, that Kerouac presents a distinctive American idiom to compare with the likes of Twain or Fitzgerald.
Burroughs style is different again. He resisted close affiliation with The Beats, but was well acquainted with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Corso (p86; in The Job: Interviews 1970). In his association with visual artist Brion Gysin Burroughs elaborated his renowned cut up technique, towards certain collage effects in his Soft Machine trilogy (1961-64), work of rare experimentation. But it was his subject matter veering toward outrider type behaviour, such as heroin addiction in Junky, though he later cleaned up, that led to prosecution.
A merit of the book is that it doesn’t just refer to these three stalwarts but includes chapters on ‘Women’s Beat’ and ‘Afro-Beat’, the former giving particular attention to Diane di Prima (eg Loba), Joanne Kyger and Anne Waldman (eg Iovis). The ‘Afro-Beat’ chapter provides commentary on Baraka, Ted Joans (eg Teducation) and Bob Kaufman. Jazz bebop was highly significant too, from Charlie Parker to Coltrane and Miles Davis. The sixties of course saw a shift towards calls for black empowerment, in which Baraka, among others, was strenuously involved.
While Lee provides wider cultural context and suggestions about the future, it looks very much as though the Beat consciousness has slid away with the passing of Ginsberg and Burroughs in April and August 97 respectively. And an aftermath in academic canonisation has seen a proliferation of scholarly treatments such as the Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature (2018).
Ginsberg’s open form and mind breath techniques are still relevant, consistent with the likes of Whitman or Olson. He embraced Buddhism, eg at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (from 1974) at Naropa, Colorado, but was also versed in the Hinduism of the Upanishads, ‘destroyed by madness’ he was not, keeping an extraordinary composure, with his highly instinctive adherence to his core literature, in the midst of some pretty wild times, especially the late ‘60s, a ‘poet first and above all’ (p40). Burroughs sustained his excoriating, apocalyptic critique. Kerouac one might have felt got famous without being well able to cope with it, and was better known for his more accessible spontaneous works, like Dharma Bums etc, while lacking appreciation for the kinds of texts he was more drawn to, like his Jack Duluoz cycle. Remembrance and spontaneous nowness just didn’t sit well together. That was part of the essential dilemma of The Beats.