||Issue Date: 6 / 2008
Ginsberg, Kerouac, the Beats and the Hippies
It seems so long ago, and yet it’s like yesterday, and in some ways it is still with me now. The time when I was young and told my elders that I would go my own way. It was more than a youthful rebellion, but part of a revolution that took on a life of its own.
Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg,
and Peter Orlovsky (left to
right, back row) in Mexico, in an
Wikimedia / GNU Free
It’s hard to set an exact date for the start of the “Beat Generation” but most would agree that the movement started around two milestone events involving two seminal writers: Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac.
Allen Ginsberg: Troubadour of the Beats
One seminal event was the reading of a poem by Allen Ginsberg at an art gallery in San Francisco. He was young and slightly balding wearing horn rimmed glasses, and he had a full complement of supporters with him. It was October 1956 to be exact, when Ginsberg first read "Howl" the poem he wrote in a Berkeley, California cottage the year before. It was a moment in American poetry that rivaled Walt Whitman’s reading of his "Song of Myself" almost a hundred years earlier. Ginsberg like Whitman didn’t bother with rhyme or poetic standards. How could a poem make such a deep impression? Well just listen to the opening and imagine each line delivered in a single breath without any break whatever:
“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…
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...”
and then Ginsberg goes on to describe his friends who suffered and
“bared their brains to heaven, who passed through universities,
ate fire in paint hotels,
vanished into nowhere...”
No doubt you are instantly aware that this is a different kind of poetry, one you may not be accustomed to. Not only is the poem not orderly, but it says some terrible things. It presents a picture of the young, the disillusioned, the ones who wouldn’t conform to the straight laced way of doing things, and who paid and would continue to pay the price for their disrespect and hatred.
Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was a student at New York’s Columbia University. He came from a middle class Jewish home in Newark, New Jersey. His father Louis was a high school teacher who wrote poetry. His mother was born in Russia, ill during most of Allen’s youth, she died early. The English poet William Blake was Ginsberg’s principal inspiration, and much of his early writing is traceable to Blake’s mystique. Another inspiration was the New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams, who wrote the introduction to the volume containing "Howl:"
"Say what you will, he [Ginsberg] proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith -- and the art! -- to persist."
The long poem quickly became a favorite not just among the young, but among those who cared about contemporary writing. Almost immediately, however, censorship reared its ugly head. "Howl" was removed from stores and bookshelves everywhere. An obscenity trial ensued. Ginsberg won. Today more than 1,000,000 copies of "Howl" are in circulation.
Shortly before he died in 1997 I heard Allen Ginsberg perform at the Waterloo, New Jersey poetry festival funded by the Mabel Dodge Foundation. An elderly man with a mellow, somewhat high voice accompanied himself with a harmonium (an organ like music box) before a rapt audience of hundreds. I was deeply moved, not so much perhaps by the three poems he recited but by the unique position he occupies in the history of American poetry.
It would be misleading to present Ginsberg as a one-poem poet. Although "Howl" is his hallmark achievement, his other poems merit your attention, as well. Try "A Supermarket in California," for example. Here he resurrects Walt Whitman for an incredible walk down the aisles of plenty a walk that is filled with both anger and despair.
“I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,
poking among the meats in the refrigerator…
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?
What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you,
and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman?
The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?”
Ginsberg is probably the only poet who ever wrote about a baggage room, this one at a Greyhound Bus Terminal where he saw “…hundreds of suitcases full of tragedy rocking back and forth waiting to be opened... nor seabags emptied into the night in the final warehouse.” In “Sunflower Sutra” (a Sutra is a Vedic verse written in the Indian tradition) the poet expresses his compassion for a wilted sunflower thrown on a trash heap:
“Look at the sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow
against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust – …
So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter,
and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too,
and anyone who’ll listen…”
Jack Kerouac: Inveterate Traveler
The second cornerstone of the Beat equation, was a book by Jack Kerouac published in 1957 entitled "On the Road." Last year it celebrated its 50th anniversary.
It is less a novel than a travelogue. One of the characteristics of the Beats was their wanderlust. They were always on the road to somewhere. Exact location did not matter, except that the pendulum was usually between San Francisco and New York or vise versa. Travel was not however confined to the continental United States. Beats traveled to India, Japan, the Philippines anywhere never really expecting to find what they were looking for, or to put it another way, never really knowing what it was they were looking for.
As Jack Kerouac writes:
"The Beat Generation that was a vision we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg … of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in a way the subterraneans heroes who’d finally turned from the 'freedom' machine of the West… digging bop, having flashes of insight, prophesying a new style of American culture…chances are it was really an idea in our minds. We’d stay up 24 hours drinking cup after cup of black coffee…talking madly about that holy new feeling out there in the streets…
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was born in Lowell, Massachusetts of French-Canadian parents who came to New England looking for work. A talented athlete Kerouac, won a football scholarship to Columbia University where he met Allen Ginsberg, but he never received a degree. Here he also encountered the hero of his novel/travelogue Neal Cassady (called Dean Moriarty in the book).
In 1942 Kerouac joined the Merchant Marine. In 1943 we find him in the Navy. Between 1947 and l951 he is on the road in a never ending push from city to city, from bar to bar, woman to woman, driving always at high speeds, without a license, on the road to nowhere. There is a legend that Kerouac wrote "On the Road" in 30 days. Actually he composed it over a period of five years, rewriting over and over again into a thin notebook he carried with him everywhere. What he records is the minutiae of his wanderings with Neal Cassady, the unlikely hero of the book. Neal Cassady had done time for multiple car thefts, and was basically a smalltime cheat and liar but seems to have fascinated not just Kerouac but a whole array of Beats including Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx in the book).
"Instant writing" Kerouac called his method of setting down words, what the academics call "stream of consciousness writing," or as one critic put it, "…writing that is like a jazz musician caught up in the excitement of spontaneous creation."
The famous author Truman Capote had other words for it: he called the book an exercise in typing rather than writing.
Certainly Kerouac is guilty of not excising the chaff in his story but there are also many highlights. One is Terry, a girl he picked up on a bus, and their time together in Los Angeles: "South Main Street where Terry and I took strolls with hot dogs, was a fantastic carnival of lights, and wildness. The beatest characters in all the country swarmed on the sidewalks all of it under those soft Southern California stars that are lost in the brown halo of the huge desert encampment. You could smell tea, weed…floating in the air, together with chili beans and beer; the sound of bop … mixed medleys with every kind of cowboy and boogie-woogie in the American night."
Original cover for Kerouac's
Needing money Kerouac decided to hire himself out, picking cotton but this proved more difficult than he had anticipated. "I knew nothing about picking cotton. I spent too much time disengaging the white ball from its crackly bed; the others did it in one flick. Moreover my fingertips began to bleed. I needed gloves, or more experience. There was an old Negro couple in the field with us. They picked cotton with the same blessed patience their grandfathers had practiced in ante-bellum Alabama…their bags increased. But it was beautiful kneeling and hiding in that earth."
Another highlight is a description of a New Year’s Eve Party back in New York. "The parties were enormous; there were at least a hundred people at a basement apartment in the West Nineties. People overflowed into the cellar apartments. Great groups filed in from the old Columbia Campus bar. Everything in life, all the faces of life, were piling into the same room."
Nothing spoke more to the Beats than jazz. Here is a jazz session in San Francisco "Out we jumped in the back seat and clanked to the little Harlem on Folsom street. Dean was already racing across the street with his thumb in the air, yelling, blow, man, blow. They were all urging the tenor man to hold it and keep it with cries and wild eyes. He decided to blow his top and crouched down and hit a high C for a long time."
The book ends on a nostalgic note in New York. "So in America, when the sun goes down, and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in that immensity of it…"
Kerouac and Neal Cassady both died young exhausted by a life of debauchery and drink. Ginsberg though, lived to a relatively old age.
There are many more elements to the Beat story, one in particular perhaps. That is the search and in some cases the finding of meaning in the religions of the East, especially Zen Buddhism. Born a Jew, Ginsberg died a Buddhist.
The Beats influenced the great names of music, the Beatles; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Bob Dylan to mention just a few. The Beats also spawned a full shelf of poets including Gregory Corso, Michael Mc Clure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and influenced others like Gary Snyder and Kenneth Rexroth. The Cold War -- the period of nervous confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States and the McCarthy era -- cast its shadow over the Beat generation and is strongly reflected in some Ginsberg poems.
The Hippies were in many ways an extension of the Beats; they came along just about ten years later. The key years for the Hippies were the late 1960’s symbolized by the flower children, and marked by the summer “Love In” in Haight Ashbury, the massive demonstrations in opposition to the Vietnam War and the Chicago riots during the Democratic National Convention there.
But the key element was Woodstock. It was a music festival that took place from August 15th to August 18th 1969 in Bethel near the small town of Woodstock in upstate New York. More than 200,000 young people from all over the country came to this 600 acre dairy farm. They came to have fun, to hear their favorite bands play -- The Who; Jefferson Airplane; Blood, Sweat and Tears; and singers like Janis Joplin and Joan Baez -- but also to make a statement about their independence, their non-conformity.
Changes in lifestyle came about through communes where the young decided to live, to learn about the Eastern religions. They lead the way in experimenting with new foods. They favored the out-of-doors and a more selfless way of living.
Today the influence of the Beats and the Hippies remain an undeniable part of our landscape, affecting our thinking and our creative perception.
Fred Stern has explored the creative efforts of artists and
writers worldwide. His work has appeared in European and
Asian publications as well as on Artnet.com. He writes a
bimonthly column on the arts for Commuter Week and is a
frequent contributor to The World & I. He has given courses
on American writers and has taught poetry and creative
writing at the Institute of New Dimensions. He has lectured
widely on these topics. A volume of his verses was published
in 2006 under the title 'Corridors of Light.'