Not Really a Beatnik

Poet and Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Poet and Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the Late 1950s

I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti in person over fifty years ago when he came to Dartmouth College for reading of poems from his book A Coney Island of the Mind. The picture above was taken in the late 1950s, and I saw him somewhere between 1962 and 1966 when he still looked that way.

My fellow students asked the usual bozo questions—based primarily on his association with the beat generation writers—and he fielded them so effectively that I kept my mouth shut. After all, I had never heard of the man before he showed up, though I bought a copy of A Coney Island of the Mind the next day.

Ferlinghetti still lives in San Francisco, though he no longer actively runs the City Lights Bookstore. It is his misfortune to be conflated with the Beatnik poets, though his primary interaction with them was as publisher of many of their works. According to an interview with Robert Scheer of Truthdig.Com:

I was a straight man keeping the store back home,” he says cheerfully. “I was leading a respectful married life on Portrero Hill. These guys were much too far out for me. I didn’t go out on the road with them. And I came from a former generation. When I arrived in San Francisco I was still wearing my beret from Paris, and we were known as bohemians … people who led an unconventional creative life before the Beats came along.

We must not forget that Ferlinghetti is also a major U.S. poet in his own right, as is evident in his poem “The World Is a Beautiful Place”:

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don’t mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don’t sing
all the time

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind some people dying
all the time
or maybe only starving
some of the time
which isn’t half bad
if it isn’t you

Oh the world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t much mind
a few dead minds
in the higher places
or a bomb or two
now and then
in your upturned faces
or such other improprieties
as our Name Brand society
is prey to
with its men of distinction
and its men of extinction
and its priests
and other patrolmen

and its various segregations
and congressional investigations
and other constipations
that our fool flesh
is heir to

Yes the world is the best place of all
for a lot of such things as
making the fun scene
and making the love scene
and making the sad scene
and singing low songs and having inspirations
and walking around
looking at everything
and smelling flowers
and goosing statues
and even thinking
and kissing people and
making babies and wearing pants
and waving hats and
and going swimming in rivers
on picnics
in the middle of the summer
and just generally
‘living it up’
but then right in the middle of it
comes the smiling


Belief and Technique for Modern Prose

Jack Kerouac and Friend

Jack Kerouac and Friend

The following is an itemized list in its entirety of how to write modern prose like a beatnik by Jack Kerouac. It was published in The Evergreen Review, Volume 2, No. 8, in 1959. As usual, Jack varies between the profound and the mundane, all mixed up like:

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house [a rule often violated by Jack]
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry, but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Dont [sic] think of words when you stop but to see the picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning [eh?]
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In Praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

The above is reprinted in Fred W. McDarrah’s book Kerouac & Friends: A Beat Generation Album, a not bad introduction to the movement together with photos of its main characters.

If there is a lot of unevenness in the whole beat vision, I think you can see why.


Beatniks Then and Now

Fifty Years Before the Opera Came the Novel

A Full Fifty Years Before the Opera Came the Novel

A hundred years before Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the Beat Generation came into being, there were the “original” Bohemians—although, possibly, one could make a case for tracing them all the way back to François Villon in the 15th Century—popularized by Henri Murget in Scènes de la Vie de Bohème (or Bohemians of the Latin Quarter). We are probably much more familiar with the operas based on this popular novel of the 1840s, including Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème. Ruggiero Leoncavallo also wrote an operatic version, and the Broadway musical Rent is loosely based on  Murger’s novel of 1846-1847.

The big difference between the Beats and Murget’s Bohemians is that, while the Beats were more heavily into booze and drugs, the Parisian artists and artistes of the 1840s were more into surviving. The whole picture of the starving young artist really came into fruition around then. We see pieces of it in Honoré de Balzac’s Illusions Perdues (Lost Illusions) and some of his other works, but it was Murger who popularized it, while graciously acknowledging Balzac’s contribution.

In Murget’s novel, there were four main heroes: Rodolphe, Marcel, Colline, and Schaunard, along with their mistresses, especially Mimi and Musette. What distinguishes Murget from Balzac is that he is nowhere near as dark. His Bohemian artists are impoverished, but generous and good-hearted. Although it has a “where are the snows of yesteryear” (itself a quote from Villon) sadness to it, we do not feel there is any evil present, except perhaps in the landlords who persist on asking for rent. As Marcel cynically says at one point toward the end:

It is no longer possible for us to continue to live much longer on the outskirts of society—on the outskirts of life almost—under the penalty of justifying the contempt felt for us, and of despising ourselves. For, after all, is it a life we lead? And are not the independence, the freedom of mannerism of which we boast so loudly, very mediocre advantages? True liberty consists of being able to dispense with the aid of others, and to exist by oneself, and have we got to that? No, the first scoundrel, whose name we would not bear for five minutes, avenges himself for our jests, and becomes our lord and master the day on which we borrow from him five francs, which he lends us after having made us dispense the worth of a hundred and fifty in ruses or in humiliations. For my part, I have had enough of it. Poetry does not alone exist in disorderly living, touch-and-go happiness, loves that last as long as a bedroom candle, more or less eccentric revolts against those prejudices which will eternally rule the world, for it is easier to upset a dynasty than a custom, however ridiculous it may be. It is not enough to wear a summer coat in December to have talent; one can be a real poet or artist whilst going about well shod and eating three meals a day. Whatever one may say, and whatever one may do, if one wants to attain anything one must always take the commonplace way.

Unfortunately, not many people today read Murger. It is interesting, however, to trace an idea back to its origins; and Murger makes for pleasant reading. You can find a free English translation on Gutenberg.Com.

American Muse

Neal Cassady, “American Muse and Holy Fool”

Neal Cassady, “American Muse and Holy Fool”

He was the real hero of the Beat Generation. Variously called Dean Moriarty and Cody Pomeray by Jack Kerouac, Hart Kennedy by John Clellon Holmes, and in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1955), “N.C, secret hero of these poems.” It is almost as if the whole Beat moment were mainly about Neal Cassady (1926-1968), a petty criminal who served time in prison for car theft, shoplifting, and fencing of stolen goods. Although he never published a word during his lifetime, it was Neal who acted as a catalyst for his friends. As Jack Kerouac wrote in On The Road:

He was simply a youth tremendously excited with life, and though he was a con-man, he was only conning because he wanted so much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him…. Somewhere along the line, I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line, the pearl would be handed to me.

Kerouac described his friend’s influence on his writing style “as in a rush of mad ecstasy, without self-consciousness or mental hesitation.” You can see some of this in this YouTube interview at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco between Cassady and Allen Ginsberg:

In a 1953 letter to his friend Jack, he wrote:

Well it’s about time you wrote, I was fearing you farted out on top that mean mountain or slid under while pissing in Pismo, beach of flowers, food and foolishness, but I knew the fear was ill-founded for balancing it in my thoughts of you, much stronger and valid if you weren’t dead, was a realization of the experiences you would be having down there, rail, home, and the most important, climate, by a remembrance of my own feelings and thoughts (former low, or more exactly, nostalgic and unreal; latter hi) as, for example, I too seemed to spend time looking out upper floor windows at sparse, especially nighttimes, traffic in females—old or young.

It is not so much a well-constructed unit of thought as an onrush, barely keeping on the rails.

And, in the end, it was the rails that did him in. He was in San Miguel Allende in Mexico in 1968 when he drank too much alcohol and took Seconal, then went walking along the rails on his way to the next town. That’s where he was found, unresponsive, dying in the local hospital. He could have died of an overdose or of renal failure or of “exposure.”


It All Started as Friendship...

It All Started as a Friendship…

The so-called beat generation actually started as a bunch of friends who liked to get together to talk, drink, smoke marijuana, and—perhaps—even have some casual sex along the way. The only difference between Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, John Clellon Holmes, and millions of other groups of rambunctious youngsters was that some of them had talent.

Last month, I read Kerouac’s Big Sur; and I am now reading John Clellon Holmes’s Go. The original beats would probably think of me as some sort of stick-in-the-mud, but I admire their all-out pursuit of freedom, even when it leads—as it did for many of them—to disorder and early sorrow. In Big Sur, Kerouac turns to drink the way that most people turn to inhaling oxygen. In Go, the action is frenetic and endless, especially once Hart Kennedy [Neal Cassady] joins them:

Ben’s connection had not showed; the sweet cologne fragrance of benzedrine about him and the discoloration of his lips suggested that there may have been no marijuana connection at all, but somehow that did not matter. Continuance was what concerned them, and where to go next. After a number of improbable ideas (places that would not be open, people who would not be up), they settled on a friend of Ben’s, who lived on One Hundred and Twenty-third Street and Amsterdam Avenue, who would “surely have liquor.” Although at another moment this would have seemed unlikely to them all, now they believed it with bland innocence as though all discord in the universe had been resolved by their harmony, which, in any case, did not depend on such details.

Below is a photo of Jack Kerouac with Allen Ginsberg, who was probably the most talented writer of the lot:

Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac

Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac

In the months to come, I plan to read more works by this unique “band of brothers” who had an outsize influence on the middle of the Twentieth Century, even if, as the movies and lurid paperbacks above show, it was mostly misinterpreted.