A. Robert Lee, ed., The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature. New York and London: Routledge, 2018. Pp. xv; 350.
“Poetry is poetry and Beat is something else” (Gregory Corso)
Robert Lee opens his introduction to this 350 page international handbook he has edited by sensibly observing that Beat writing possesses a central canon, produced by what I always think of as a core of Beat writers: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. It does. But also, straightway, caveats have to push into view, for both Lee and me. For me, the most immediate concern is that these three writers were, for the most part, very different from each other, in terms of their writing (the ways they wrote), their backgrounds, their social and political engagements, and their world views, and these differences always but also increasingly informed how and what they wrote and what they wrote about. So any “core” is also kind of a dispersion: the “canon” the trio constitute is disconcertingly, even weirdly diverse, not least because, individually, their art became ever more prolix, varied and transgeneric (all, for example, produced visual art and recorded readings, often with musical accompaniment). And then I start to worry about how identifying this canon pushes others in their immediate circle into the background – most particularly the women and “minorities” (in every sense of the word and even including the working-class as a “minority” and [my joke] musicians and visual artists, too) who lived and wrote around them and were very much involved.
These marginalizations have been recently much commented upon. For Lee, what has to happen to rectify this is to secure much greater recognition of “altogether more inclusive galleries of writing” (1). Indeed, he suggests any productivity in proposing a central Beat canon has largely dissolved (“fall[ing] greatly short of the mark” ), though it must then be said that the 23 essays to hand always name one or more of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs as constituting “influence[s]” and often mention only a few or even no other American “Beats”. Sensibly recognising that such inclusiveness has been the most prominent though still as yet a fairly recent development in Beat Studies, Lee sets out to collect together essays emphasizing even more, and even more exhaustively, the ways in which ways of identifying attachments to the Beat phenomenon have become ever more global in the twenty-first century (something, by the way, that the ESBN has done much to foster). So off we go: and it’s a bumpy, exhilarating, exhausting and at times factitiously tendentious ride.
To do justice to this (yes) wild ride, it seems imperative to establish summarily its enormous scope; here it is:
After Lee’s introduction Part One explores Beat literature in Canada (Streip) and Mexico (de la Garma); Part Two (the English-speaking world) looks at Britain (Walker), Scotland (Paton), and Australia (Birns); Part Three (Western Europe) looks at France (Pacini), Italy (Stefanelli), the Netherlands (van der Bent), Belgium (Bellarsi), Germany (Greiffenstern), Austria (Antoni), Spain (Encarnación-Pinedo) and Poland (Pietrasz & Sawczuk); Part Four (Northern Europe) examines Russia (Epstein), Denmark (Movin), Norway (Forsgren), Sweden (Öst)) and Finland (Vievo). Part Five explores Greece (Mackay), Turkey (Mortenson) and Morocco (Louai); and Part Six (the East) considers Japan (Lee) and China (Heal).
Phew. The extent to which these essays (varying in length between circa fifteen and circa thirty pages) cover the whole gamut of international best activity can be debated, and it would have been at least interesting to hear why the Caribbean, South America, the Indian subcontinent and almost all of Africa remained unconsidered. But, insofar as what follows makes any attempt to be a review of this substantial book, it is not going to draw up endless examples of overlooked or under-represented arenas.
Instead I intend to raise some more existential questions. By this I do not intended to prepare for an assault on the existence of this collection of essays. To the contrary, I do not wholly reject Lee’s assertion that in toto this set of essays contributes to an “extension” of “the literary map” in which “Beat becomes … challengingly larger” as Beat influence/ measure[s]/ practice[s]/ spirit are traced in several circum-Atlantic, circum-Pacific and circum-European instances.
The giveaway in my last sentence is the struggle to decide how to present these Beat “panorama[ic]”inter-penetrations. To a slightly uncomfortable extent I found myself wondering a lot of the time what sort of relationship was being propounded between any one artist or group of artists (located wherever – and not always fixed in one location, of course) and the Beat at any one point. The book does not often offer full clarifications in this respect. It might be (to go back to the list above) to do with a Beat influence, or a Beat measure, or a Beat practice, or a Beat spirit. Or – to add other labellings, it might be to do with a Beat patina, or a Beat wisp, or Beat shadowing, being Beat-in-manner, being Beat-like, being counter-culturally Beat, being a Beat enlistee, adopting a Beat compass, a Beat heritage, a Beat paradigm, a Beat sensibility, a Beat spirit (or a Beat-like spirit), a Beat affinity (or a Beat-like affinity), or Beat ghosts, or else qualifying as Beat, or being part of the global Beat or the Beat project or deploying Beat paradigms or palimpsests. This is a long list of possibilities (some less helpful than others), but what any one of these constitutes remains under- or undefined, either at the outset, or as the volume unfolds.
For all the reader is usually led to understand, these varied identifications may be no more than the shuffling of (near-)synonyms in a thesaurus entry under the heading “Beat influence”, which I think was the commonest underlying (if difficult) illumination this Handbook’s reader might bring to bear when seeking to understand what might be meant, whenever it wasn’t really fully clear. That is to say, it is an attribution always to be aware of and, as Polina Mackay observes, suspicious of, too (283). There was, I think, some scope for maybe not more definition to have surfaced (the interactions are often so fluid), but a greater precision about what kind of dynamic inter-action was being proposed (for example, what exactly constitutes the interesting sounding “Beat ghosting”?). This might have helped counter a prevailing sense that not much more than long lists of (possible) international “Beat” writers and interactions were accruing (mostly ones that were in this volume geographically defined – this being something of a weakness [things could have been more circum-global]).
However, I do think that what is undertaken is a huge task of considerable interest, despite the repeated lack of clarity about what sort of engagement was being propounded – however fluid. Some essays, in this respect, do move with more precision, such as Peggy Pacini’s (though she at one point splices together the surrealists and the Beats without really clarifying what the triangulation – Beat canoneers<>Surrealism<>French “Beat[s]” – quite entails). A search for clarity can also be found in the essays by Thomas Antonic and Alexander Greiffenstern (though the latter seems to suggest Bob Dylan is straightforwardly a Beat [perhaps he is?]), whilst, refreshingly, Lars Movin limits his essay to exploring the work of three Danish writers and Lee just two. But many of the other contributions are less focused.
Perhaps the task was just too difficult, partly because, obviously, taking on the brief of writing, say, “Beat France” required the contributor to embrace the framing on offer. It thus must become somewhat difficult to kick over the traces, though, maybe instructively, Lee himself in his section on Beat Japan can be found musing “whether or not Shirashi enters the roster as a fully registered Beat enlistee” (318), despite the fact Lee’s exploration of her work takes up pretty much fifty percent of his essay). Others also, passingly, experience such angst. Fiona Paton quotes Irvine Welsh: “Express your culture, your concerns and those of your community and the voices within it … don’t get obsessed with histories and legacies or markers and ‘rules’” (69), which clearly makes the point that ideas about transnational influences or involvements or “inspirations” should be at best secondary, whilst Nicholas Birns quotes Luke Carman being even more forthright: “it shits me to tears that you don’t realise that Australia, the country you’re supposed to be from, doesn’t have any-damn-thing to do with Kerouac” (82) This quote worries Birns, unsurprisingly. It could have been made much worse if Carman’s point had been conjoined with that of Jürgen Ploog in 2016: “”one only gets the [Beat] attitude to life when one has lived on the lower east side for a while. And I haven’t done this” (148). I’d argue that a more regular inclusion of such moments of reflexive existential doubt (which Benjamin Heal also briefly offers, for example) would have been constructive, by requiring a more careful engagement with the word Beat and any of its many surrounding epithets.
Skirting such reflexive issues is, I think, always made easier by the fact that writing by the Beats is so very stylistically diverse, for this makes the assertion of “influence” or its near-synonyms so much easier to claim. Showing briefly what I mean takes us back to the Beat “canon”. What have these four quotations of writing got in common?:
And I know that this is no world for love and with all of my twenty-five years I suddenly have to cry again … but that may very well be hypocrisy and mental pride and a criminal kind of inverted saintliness
I saw again thinking in my mind
Thousands of miserable beings fornicating in the gutters of their existence
And I was frightened
And I threw up big incomprehension clots
all over skin – I want to Know – walking skin flowers – screaming mind ashes – look anywhere dark information from the Death – shattered tongues – sock my message … — words falling – photo falling … open fire
already after 1 hour … fell down in a slimy compound of shit water from the broken flush piss fear sweat sperm crumbly their septa cracked the youth club sent its best table tennis players … quietly cream candies spouted (again) waves of sperm through toilet doors sailed
The answer, I think, is not very much. Hopefully, this review’s readers will recognize strong traces of the very different stylistic characteristics of (respectively) Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs (twice) in these three short quotes but also will know these are not in fact written by these three American Beats. They are in fact by, respectively, the Netherlander, Hans Andreus, the Frenchman Alain Jégou, the Dane Dan Turrèll and the Austrian Elfriede Jelinek, though the extract from Jelinek had to be edited to remove a giveaway sign – the enjoyment of sex by women. (There is a relative scarcity of women in this panoply of phallocentrically-inclined international Beats (of course, I’m tempted to add); Mortensen’s essay is one honourable exception, and he also attends to homosexual inflections more than fleetingly, as does El Habib Louai – Turkey and Morocco: now that is instructive). But my immediate point here is that such a huge diversity of Beat literary styles that might serve as influence(s) of some sort generates what was perhaps always the problem: given such variety, once you set off to be more inclusive and especially when you go world-wide, the flood-gates are opened and stuff can pour into the category “Beat.” There’s no stopping it. It takes over a quarter of a million words, in this instance, to produce Lee’s “handbook”.
Is this a bad thing? Well, it makes for even more heady times, but a kind of endlessness continues to open up. Given this licence, what must happen is the raising of the question, “Where is Xxxxx Xxxxxx in all this? Why isn’t he/she included?” Any reader of this “handbook” of essays will want to provide at least one and probably several names to replace the code Xxxxx Xxxxxx periodically, even regularly. Here I’ve decided not to go down that long addenda-ridden street. At one point a contributor to this volume asks (plaintively?) “More names?” No.
Instead I’ll move towards my conclusion by pointing out that Burroughs often declined to be considered a Beat writer, Kerouac disassociated himself from Ginsberg and Burroughs at various times and with varied emphasis, whilst Ginsberg associated himself with so many, many of the people that he met that he is effectively indefinable, except, perhaps, by temporizing, and labelling him a network node. (At one point one of the essayists in this volume wryly asks, what could be more Beat than disowning the term Beat?)
All this constitutes an unsettling dispersion and decentering, and one that just cannot be readily coped with. Unless one assumes what amounts to an industrial productiveness in the world-wide Beat (the Beat business). Maybe that assumption would be no bad thing, but it is, well, a world away from where it all began in New York City in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. The place where the Beat canoneers were trying to fathom “it” (what was happening/ evolving/ changing/ shifting/ opening-up/ disintegrating), that would lead on to where we are now: Burroughs in his way analysed it, at times with forensic, at times with carnivalesque, at times satiric sharpness; Ginsberg usually rushed to embrace it with delight, revulsion, love and frustrated emotion; Kerouac, meanwhile, wrote nearly always about how he (or his personae) lived in it (perhaps inevitably, badly). Maybe Kerouac was the one who at the time best skewered its unsettling yet defining elusiveness: he constantly referred to the need to search for “a new vision” at this time (see, for example, the recurrence of this phrase in And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, as well as elsewhere), and this also — consequently, perhaps – involved walking a tightrope, as Kerouac and Ginsberg note in letters written at this time (1946-1952). You can find this burden (in both senses of the word) in a lot of Kerouac’s early writing, though notably for Kerouac this tightrope is something one needs to go beyond to reach a new vision (see Kerouac and Ginsberg, The Letters, 2010, 62 and passim).
Maybe this driven, precarious, tightroping Beat quest (beat in so many senses of this word) to reach for a new vision, a new way of recording, responding and reacting, was accelerating at the end of World War Two and in the decade that followed, impelled by the way that modernity once and for all was morphing into postmodernity – something that, of course, was not just happening in New York, but worldwide. Yet also “Americans” (not all of them equally by any means) had emerged as the winners and for a while they took almost all. So it is no surprise that the Beat, ummmm, spirit (?) was to first flourish most in America and then contribute so seminally to what became a global engagement with what was going down: complexity, fragmentations, and loss of centrality and sure reference.
- Robert Lee’s edited collection does much to draw attention to this complex socio-cultural and political dissemination. It needs to be at least consulted and ideally read by twenty-first century Beat scholars, but always critically. Or else, risk being swept away. So many international Beats are introduced that the book risks bludgeoning us into submission. “Who is not a Beat?” is the question forced to the forefront.
Let me dramatize this. The page of the book I happen to be (re-)reading just at this moment, alongside Lee’s handbook (I’m not making this up), contains the following sentences:
“… he’s puking, Dennis, I thought you were, too”
Pete was a drinker, not too bad yet but maybe on the start to something tragic.
Dennis Hoagland I didn’t know about. His colon was probably spastic. He was dyspepetic, fitful, an alimentary type . He often reeked of Maalox.
Which writer does this remind you of? For me, it’s William Burroughs and his repeated resort to a deadpan, iron-ed-flat style. So Chang-rae Lee is a (Korean American) Beat writer in some way (for this passage comes from his Native Speaker, New York: Putnam Berkley, 1995, 15)? I don’t know about that, but Burroughs is I think something of an influence, though perhaps in this instance the display of influence is intended to be partly ironic. And this highlights the problem: does it (whatever “it” might be, and this handbook makes plain how varied the “it” must be) constitute writing influenced by or associated with or part of the Beat (or perm any combination of these three)? Can these differences be surely distinguished always or even often? Or should we more fiercely limit Beat writing (I mean here its actual composition) by the Beats to the key decade and a half plus (let’s say 1943-1959 and then perhaps extend this to, say, 1961 [and “Kaddish”). And after that speak of and write about “post-Beat” follow-ons, even ones by the canoneers themselves. And then start from this softened perspective. There is I think some (a lot of) cautious sorting out to be done, and it must be said, in praise of The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature that it gets the job started: “generando stupor, frensia, coinvolgimento”. We’re off: a world away.