The Beat Vision

Poetry Nation Review

Jan/Feb 2007

Lynn M. Zott (ed.), The Beat Generation: A Gale Critical Companion (London: Gale-Thompson, 2006), 3 vols.

Admitting a taste for the Beats can still be something of a faux pas in certain academic circles, to be greeted by a look of pained incredulity. After all, Jack Kerouac wrote rambling novels, attempting to present his own tedious travels as a sustained act of rebellion. Allen Ginsberg was a shallow self-publicist, whose meagre poetic talent was squandered in pursuit of the role of guru of the hippies. Gary Snyder may be impressive for his devotion to the ecological cause, but his poetry is flat, prosaic and dull. Such opinions represent a significant consensus, I suspect.

So established is the assumption that ‘Beat’ means ‘bad’ that the fact that for half a century the common reader has felt otherwise, and been ‘turned on’ to literature by discovering this or that Beat writer, cannot prevail against it. Nor can the fact that, more recently, students have opted for courses on the Beat movement in large numbers – and not always as a soft option. For Kerouac, Ginsberg and Snyder are not really an easy read: common readers and students alike find that this body of work makes demands, opens minds, changes worldviews. Indeed, at their best, they merit inclusion in that great visionary tradition which stretches back, not only to Whitman and American Transcendentalism, but also to Blake and English Romanticism: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.’

That may be a controversial claim: mine, I mean, not Blake’s – which at least has the advantage of longevity. But it would seem to be sustained by this ambitious, three-volume celebration of a literary movement which, in its own way, has had as big an impact on Western culture as has modernism. Significantly, both the modernists and the Beats have suffered from stereotyping: the former being regarded as elitist and esoteric; the latter being regarded as ill-disciplined and self-indulgent. Interestingly, more than one article reproduced in this critical companion suggests that a poem such as ‘Howl’ is more indebted to Eliot’s The Waste Land than at first appears. After all, it presents us with the demonic metropolis, the descent into darkness, the journey into the wilderness, and the promise of salvation: for ‘Shantih shantih shantih’ read ‘Holy holy holy’. However, it is only in a Romantic context that we can fully understand Ginsberg’s ‘Footnote to Howl’, reaffirming as it does the bardic affirmation of Blake: ‘Everything that lives is holy’. The essays gathered here largely support this approach: allusions to Romanticism are as frequent as those to bebop music and to post-war bohemianism. Though all of them have been published before, seeing them together – one volume on ‘Topics’, the other two on ‘Authors’ – makes one realise how important it is to come to terms with the way the Beats revised and extended the visionary tradition.

True, it is a pleasure to re-read Kenneth Rexroth’s early commendation of their experiments, which for him aligned them with Charlie Parker and Jackson Pollock, but we find other commentators and reviewers soon beginning to adopt a longer perspective. Again and again, Ginsberg is praised for his Blakean manner, even while doubts are expressed about whether he manages the Blakean balance between poet and seer. More generally, the debt is recognised to be as much spiritual as literary, with most summations of the Beat movement honouring the equipoise achieved in the best of the writing. One of the more recent pieces, Robert C. Fuller’s comprehensive account of the ‘psychedelic’ dimension of Beat spirituality, is probably one of the best, informed as it is by a half-century of speculation. Summation is not easy, however, and it is noteworthy that he feels it appropriate to invoke another commentator, Robert Ellwood, when it comes to stating the case as unequivocally as possible. Thus, the Beats effected ‘(1) a shift from mainline to nonconformist religion, (2) a rediscovery of natural rather than revealed religion, (3) a new appreciation for Eastern religious thought, and (4) a new Romanticism that accords spiritual importance to certain nonrational modes of thought and perception.’ That seems to me to get the picture clear: a spiritual revolution that is made possible through a literary achievement – and which could not have been made any other way. The Beats may have got their basic philosophy at the outset from the Buddha, but it was Blake who showed them that it was possible to give poetic life to such ideas.

In this context, it is worth recalling (as do many of the contributors to this companion) that Kerouac regarded himself as a religious writer. He it was who used the word ‘Beat’ to mean ‘beatific’. The introductory essay on him (in volume 3) points out that the tension between the inner world of spirituality and the outer world of bohemian hedonism is the very subject of his most famous novel, On the Road. Other contributors follow on from here, reading such novels as The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels as meditations on the nature of religious belief. According to Omar Swartz, Kerouac sponsored ‘the cult of high experience’: this may have encouraged the excesses of ‘flower power’, but he himself was always conscious that vision is not possible without constraint. Though he was responsible for introducing his fellow-writers to Zen Buddhism, it was the discipline he was interested in rather than the supposed licence to act the holy fool. Finally, disillusioned with the follies of the counterculture, he returned to the strict Catholic faith of his childhood.

As for Snyder, he has stayed true to Zen: the real thing, that is: a spiritual practice dedicated to attaining harmony with nature, not the phoney, bohemian Zen of the ‘beatniks’ (the hangers-on of the Beats). Though we have to acknowledge his own unease about the label of ‘Beat’, the material reproduced here comprises a good case for his work as a necessary corrective from within the movement to the excesses of Ginsberg. Beat poetry, that is, does not just mean a long, rambling line and an indeterminate apocalypse; it also means a sharp, clear image of nature and a laconic indictment of its enemies. Snyder, we might say, is a neo-Romantic ecologist who has had a neo-classical training – if we allow the Japanese haiku to be an appropriate model. He represents the Beat vision in its purest form.

Alan Watts once declared that ‘a universe which has manifested Gary Snyder could never be called a failure’. If that rather overstates the case, let us limit ourselves to the hypothesis that any literary movement that produces poems such as ‘Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout’ or ‘Front Lines’ could never be called a failure. See them as expressive of a genuine shift in sensibility, and the publication of this companion is justified. Every writer associated with the Beat movement is included – though it is especially revealing on the three I have mentioned. It should find a place on the shelves of all public and academic libraries; as for common readers and students, they could do worse than club together – in true Beat spirit – to buy these three volumes between them and circulate them in perpetuity.

Laurence Coupe