Mary Sands & Michael Rothenberg
Renaissance: The Beat and Beyond
If there was a Beat Generation, there still is a Beat Generation. If, if, if.
And if there still is a Beat Generation, it's all about synergy, not duplication.
Nobody has stopped reading Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, or William Burroughs. Gary Snyder didn't stop giving Buddhist allegories and climbing mountains. Diane di Prima, Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, and Michael McClure are still publishing poetry. We still celebrate the beats through music, biography, and art. Nobody has stopped feeling the same way as the beats, because that consciousness remains.
We don't think the beat writers want to take responsibility for us little monsters, and though we have been starstruck in admiration of them, we are set upon overthrowing the regime and all regimes that require patterning, which is part of the beat legacy. Kyger, Snyder, and Ferlinghetti are no more alike than Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams. The beat poets and authors were (and are) often friends because of their like-mindedness in a few areas, but their processes and products are as diverse as orchids in a family. In botany, there are Lumpers and Splitters. The Lumpers want to create huge categories and dump things with the least similarities into the same bag. The Splitters are seeking differences, branding these differences with names to honor themselves. Sorta like us.
Since the 1950s, mid-period of the beat generation, the population of the world has doubled. Being on the road isn't the same; most are too paranoid, and hitch-hiking got a bad rap some time ago. Diners evolved into fast-food joints. Hamburgs of Kerouac's day are now two-all-beef patties, or where's the beef? Cows and hogs are bred by the millions; despite efforts like Jamba Juice (with ground grass, smoothies, and Femme Boosts), the poor meat animals are penned up and slaughtered more than ever. Concert footage evolved into rockumentaries and then into MTV specials that have just the bulimic formula for quick shots and effects perfect for short attention spans. Teenage supercool anorexics wear the same vests and say 'be like us!" Bebop and then acid jazz had an unfortunate mutation: smooth jazz.
Millions of acres of rainforests have been felled; the oceans are our sewers, we have a Greenhouse Effect, thousands of species have disappeared in the last fifty years or so, and America has turned more corporate. Everything's a euphemism.
People walk through supermarkets and drive on interstates while talking on cell phones; there are more bruised bananas and car accidents than ever before. I don't know how Neal Cassady would have dealt with a cell phone.
There was a big ado about turning 2000 recently. All kinds of millennium artists appeared. The world didn't end, like some thought it would, but thousands have been abducted by aliens. Others have committed mass suicide gorging on red Jello and cheetos because that's what their cosmologist told them to do. You can join a church and shave your head and chant "Moo-ha-ha." You can find special religion on certain channels, where the preacher and his wife will be powder white and have purple highlights in their hair that reflect off all the crystal in the cathedral. You can buy a prayer and dial a prayer, and be saved by emotional messengers of a designer god.
Local communities and the knit of kinship and ritualistic passing on of grandmother wisdom have grown into teeming metropolitan areas, where you must listen to corporate "wisdom" that tells you how to be a bigger dog. Roads lead everywhere now. There is no more Route 66, the two-laned highway of Kerouac and Cassady. There are four-, six-, and eight-laned byways and highways and skyways whose roadside eateries serve apple pie in a box. Fresh-packaged salads adorn greasy display cases. Billboards on Arizona hillsides boast of primitive wares and taco expresses. The old nonconformists like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg have nothing on children who tote shotguns in schools or gangs. Hell, ingesting yage or putting your queer shoulder to the wheel is considered mild these days. Nonconformity is so widespread, and artless, that it really does feel good to be square and to care some about poetry and the environment and art that isn't populist.
The entire political debate in this country is the same one that took place at the beginning of the beat era. Topics of race, gender, liberalism, social programs, health, education, distribution of wealth, government intrusion and privacy rights, and ecological concerns still dominate the airwaves and print. All the left/right cold war ideas have been supplanted with new polarizations about freedom of speech and privacy. Protests (i.e., the WTO demonstrations in Seattle, Washington) are still in the spotlight, though faintly, and we suspect more protest is on the horizon. The entertainment industries, which have consolidated into monopolies of thought distribution/pop art distribution, are being challenged by the Internet and mp3s. So we may get our music back again--and maybe music never died, it just went way underground.
Post-war subterranean and later counterculture consciousness permeates and dictates the age/century and new-age ideas. Self-help books are products of babyboomer and woodstockers ventures, capitalizing on the rediscovery of themselves because they lost, or never got, the message that ran out of the spiritual quest that was embodied in On the Road or The Dharma Bums. These new self-remedy books are jamming bookstore and library shelves around the country. (How to Raise Your Child!--perhaps by instinct and innate knowledge, such as other mammals?).
Buddhism is at an enormous high in popularity, maybe not the Zen brand that the beats embraced; maybe it's Tibetan Buddhism, but people like Suzuki Roshi (see the Crooked Cucumber) and Alan Watts and others brought Buddhism into America, and its roots are now buried deeply in our culture. Minimalism is maybe a product of that, and Martha Graham can't even avoid it as she tells America the best way to look and live.
Nature programs, the Discovery channel, and other media is very important to consider. But It looks like journalism is dead big time from its previous important role as the 4th Arm of Democracy, defender of the truth. (Flash Bazbo.) It's hard to find real balance in any news, or depth for that matter--balance being something that reflects oppositional views. It's all degrees of conservatism. The left is now middle. The middle is out with members of Congress and House of Representative manufacturing bombs to blow up abortion clinics. But the very fact that this is evident and reported is an indication that somebody notices there is a difference, a difference from what? A difference from what we have and from what we might want, whomever we might be (that's what's missing, the true subterranean/counterculture voice).
What is happening in the beat generation? Highest beat book sales ever. Universities teaching beat literature. Beat festivals all over the place. Lowell, Massachusetts with its own Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! festival organization. A huge week-long festival, April, 2001, in Wichita, from the "chief fools". Biographers and editors and film-makers and artists still being beat. The Orlando House, in Florida, renovating a place for writers in residence to live--in honor of Kerouac's stay in that city. Pensacola, Florida holding a beat festival each year. The older beats getting inducted into the Cannabis Hall of Fame, via High Times Magazine and with guests like Carolyn Cassady and her son John Cassady. Beat sites on the Web, like this one, like Levi Asher's Literary Kicks, like Andrew Lampert's Cosmic Baseball Association, like John Dorfner's and Larry Smith's and Marcus Williams's.
A Subterraneans mailing list, with folks like Patricia Elliot, who used to hang out with Burroughs; Dave Moore, a Kerouac scholar working on a book with Carolyn Cassady as well as a large key to characters (will be the most complete yet); and Tony Trigilio, professor of a beat seminar at Columbia Collegeall mailing the list regularly. Beat magazines: Kerouac Connection, Dharma Beat, Beat Scene, Evergreen Review (all still widely read and popular)and the newest, Kerouac Rag. City Lights still ablaze, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti still publishing a monthly column at San Francisco Chronicle. People like Hettie Jones and Amiri Baraka speaking regularly at places like St. Mark's Church. Folks like David Amram, who riffed jazz-like with Kerouac, still doing shows. Brian Hassett and Levi Asher and Lord Buckley and James Stauffer and S.A. Griffin and the LA Mudpeople and... and... and... still being beat via performance and art. Michael McClure working with Ray Manzarek of the Doors, doing spoken word shows and making videos. Joyce Johnson working on a new book of letters between herself and Kerouac. Diane di Prima doing lectures, readings, teaching creative writing to undergrads at Columbia College, Chicago. The Naropa Institute and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets in full swing.
Too many things to mention, and don't let the fact that all these things are happening reflect mere interest only. There is a pulse under the sidewalk built from the beat era to now. During the 1950s, when the beats got noticed, there was a tachychardia. The beat quickens. The folks now who have these festivals, publish and read these books, teach about the beats, are just folks like you and me. But it doesn't end at celebration and honor of what happened half a century ago. There aren't clones (okay, some try to be, but they don't count) of the beats--dippy Zen-cool Daddy-o bongo thumpers. But that's not it. It, this thing, this open-eyed realization of the world, of its faults, of its natural beauty, of our place in it, of what is fair, of art, of how we craft our expressions. Whatever this thing is, it's what the beats were seeking to begin with. Did they find it? Will we find it? And what does it matter. It's the path that counts. We're on the same road.
And then there's the Internet, unheard of back in the 50s, except for maybe by the government, who may have been testing it out then. If an Internet would have been around during the beats' times, Ann Charters may have had to dig through a lot of e-mails in order to have come up with her Selected Letters books. Paul Marion would have written a book titled Atop a Keyboard: Early Writings and Other Stories by Jack Kerouac. Everyone would have had Websites. I bet Kerouac would have scanned pictures of his cats and put them up for display. Maybe Ginsberg would have had a message board. Maybe Burroughs--nah, can't picture him on the Web
The Internet has given birth to an opportunity to build our own world of information, new spontaneous opinion monsters that express dissent and land in a million e-mails on the desk of the president. Maybe it seems pathetic, but only because the media and our recent shame of having been away too long from the debate makes it seem pathetic. This is actually inspiring--and the resurgence, counterinsurgence, reframed revolution of a culture in creation and growth is operational and blossoming, and there's nothing to wait for: Just speak up. I actually e-mailed presidential candidate Al Gore and suggested that he read some of Gary Snyder's essays, and I asked who his environmental consultants were, besides those appointed politically that we already know about. This was around midnight one night. A few moments later, I realized what I'd just done. I had written to Al Gore and suggested reading material. Was I crazy? Of course not, some little voice inside said.
The Internet has brought together an amazing selection of artists, booksellers, and so on who are serious about their works. It has allowed relatively unknown people to put up sites and writings and news that we're passionate about. It has brought folks together from around the world to collaborate on new thoughts and burning ideas. The Internet is tool for a new chapter of the beat generation. It is a way for word to get out, for ideas to catch on, for like-minded people to perpetuate and share and fuel the art of today's beat generation. Though huge, the Internet has its little corners where communities form and hang on to each other. We might be thousands of miles apart, but we reduce space with the time it takes to reach each other. And when all is said and read online, we go offline to travel, meet, write, and continue.
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