‘Words sing what mind brings’
If you want to develop as a human being, never mind a writer, it’s probably a good idea to kick any idealisation of the Beats. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have passed through my life with the appetite for a Beat biography without putting in the hours. And teach creative writing long enough, and you’ll soon feel the chill of wasted time when faced with another piece where first thought makes for the best thought. Throw the assignment away, don’t look where it lands.
But what is taught and what is art are often too contrary things, particularly when it comes to the experimental or the innovative. Any writing has the potential for bad writing, after all. An
imagination wholly dependent on the ‘craft’ can as easily lead to writing that is plodding, predictable, reeking of the caution of the over-planned. The critics who’d tell you that the Beats were a one-off, are the kind that like to ignore that the willingness to experiment has always worked in tandem to the idea of tradition. You can trace Beat precursors in Celine, Gide, Wilde, Clare, de Quincey, Blake. The band tore about like a collection of grubby aesthetes; it’s not a great leap from Walter Pater’s ‘Burn always with a hard gemlike flame’ to Ginsberg’s ‘angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection…’
It all comes back down to the work, because all lives end in a certain amount of resignation. Ginsberg became a political operator, and the world’s most recognisable outsider artist. Kerouac became as sad as any other alcoholic, weeping over dead cats and love for his mother. Burroughs became a wily sage, as genial and patient with his time as an aged con artist. More marginal figures, like Jack Gilbert and John Wieners, offer as much of a creative legacy, but no one is lining up to play either of them in a Hollywood movie. Linger too long on the details- the booze, pills and heroin, the dead wives and divorces, the divine madness, murders and other victims in the wayside- and you won’t find any time for the work. Maybe the collective genius lay in getting so much done.
What I take from the Beats now is that willingness to embrace all forms, to free up influences. Poetry and fiction become not discrete arts, but twin methods of writing. Writing becomes the word, and the word is the conduit to the image, explored through Burrough’s relationship with Brion Gysin, the Pull My Daisy film, and even the painting of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The writer is too often an anaemic figure, dull, anxious, erasing a sense of self in a negative energy. Writing, friends, is often boring, and the worst of fiction tends to cannibalise itself in the name of an overly dutiful respect for antecedents. Beat writing extends the work out of the page, making experimentalism a physical, human pursuit.
© Daniel Bennett