The Beats: A Teaching Companion, Clemson University Press in association with Liverpool University Press, Beat Studies series, 2021.
A review by John Shapcott
The first sight of Nancy Grace’s edited volume The Beats: A Teaching Companion left me feeling a little daunted, not so much by its size as by its unadorned dark black cover design reminiscent of those ancient bibles found chained to lecterns in gloomy English parish churches. Why this initial disappointment with what some may regard as the rather superficial business of design aesthetics? The answer lies with my early encounters with Beat life, leaving school as a nineteen year old to work in central London in the 1960s. There was no guide, no Companion then, but rather an exciting personal and colourful encounter with a new world. You might bump into Allen Ginsberg walking down Charing Cross Road, listen to Al Alvarez talk of an evening about Sylvia Plath and holocaust literature in a smoke filled basement at Better Books, and hear poet Adrian Mitchell rage against the Vietnam War at the 1965 ‘International Poetry Incarnation’. As for music, I saw Bob Dylan at the Festival Hall in 1964, experienced many a Beat-inflected rock performance by the likes of King Crimson and David Bowie at Soho’s Marquee Club, and heard such Kerouac jazz favourites as Coleman Hawkins and the Count Basie Band. And then there were the books. As if by alchemical attraction I saw and bought my first Beat book – John Calder’s 1963 edition of Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book (incidentally Trocchi is absent from the Teaching Companion index), closely followed by the same publisher’s William Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch. Barry Miles made sure that the American Beats were well represented at Better Books in Charing Cross Road (again, an important British name unfortunately missing from the Companion index) and became my unofficial Beat teaching companion by allowing me to take away books and pay later. Within four years I had the confidence and experience to successfully apply to Keele University, where my first undergraduate American Studies essay was ‘A Vision of Decay: An Analysis of William Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch’.
Since those early days when the term Beats meant a white male triumvirate and their friends, it has expanded exponentially to become as wide ranging and difficult to police as similar catch-all labels like modernism and postmodernism. Having academically grown up alongside this at times dizzying expansion of the field I looked forward to Grace’s volume as an opportunity to not only take stock of a changing pedagogic world but also — and this surely is important – to reflect upon whether my revelatory world of 1960s direct unmediated experience of Beat lore is lost forever.
Grace’s introduction generates just that sense of anticipation of delving into new areas of learning that remains essential if the life, joy, kicks, and music of Beat culture are to be passed on to future generations, without that stultifying darkness that can too often descend on the classroom/lecture hall. She is surely right, for instance, to draw attention to the potential for student engagement with pressing environmental issues, marking the Beats early public entry into the debate with Michael McClure’s reading of ‘For the Death of 100 Whales’ in 1955. Within space limitations, Grace succeeds in generating a sense of excitement at possible teaching strategies to follow, although the UK reader needs to be alert to an early hint of a bias towards American theory and practice. The collection is organized around five sub-divisions aimed at integrating ‘Beat, Beat-associated, and Beat legacy artists into a range of topics central to teaching Beat literature’. In practice, as this review makes clear, these sub-divisions — Foundational issues, Beat genres, Beat literary topics, Beat lineages and legacies, Appendix with teaching suggestions — are near impossible to keep within discrete boundaries.
Matt Theado’s opening essay discusses Beat censorship history, with particular reference to Ginsberg’s Howl, Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, McClure’s The Beard, and Lenore Kandel’s The Love Book. This is necessarily very much an American analysis centred on First Amendment rights and the reaction of individual school boards to the teaching of perceived obscene material. There is a passing mention of D.H.Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but for a British/European readership an outline of the early twentieth-century court battles over, say, James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), and Norah C. James’s Sleeveless Errand (1929), would have given a more universal context to obscenity debates, and drawn attention to the not uncommon practice here, and in the States, of finding foreign publishers beyond prosecution.( James’s novel also presents intriguing English proto-type Beat characters.) A. Robert Lee’s ‘Home and Abroad: Multicultural Beat to International Beat’ contribution addresses head on the increasingly global reach of Beat culture, and the conterminous space opening up for female Beat writers. Lee, perhaps thanks to his years teaching in England, gives due weight to the contribution of UK Beat writers such as Michael Horovitz, Trocchi, and Jeff Nuttall. Future studies might fruitfully explore the work of Liverpool poet and painter Adrian Henri, who took his Beat-inflected performative art into the classroom.
Steven Belletto’s take on ‘Teaching Beat Little Magazines’ strike exactly the right note for this volume in emphasizing from the outset the notion of ‘pleasure’ in Beat research. His whistle-stop survey of the many little magazines carrying the Beat message is impressive in its coverage, drawing attention to the importance of their paratextual content in providing valuable socio-political context. Belletto also makes a crucially important economic and pedagogic point in emphasizing the relative cheapness, and therefore student accessibility, of many Beat magazines. Whilst David Calonne’s essay on Beat spirituality argues for the centrality of the religious quest, he imaginatively links it to other writers, presumably familiar to his students, from Shakespeare to J.R.R.Tolkein. It was both encouraging and paradoxically disappointing to read Calonne’s passing reference to Lew Welch. Welch is the forgotten Beat, much admired by McClure, but with only one collection of poetry and two volumes of letters published, together with Adam Saroyan’s short memoir – with his archives readily available, here surely is a project to attract further student research. Explicating Gnosticism, Calonne is masterly in unpacking an esoteric passage in the first chapter of Kerouac’s On the Road, which ends with Sal Paradise’s belief that somewhere the pearl would be handed to him. He links this pearl reference to the Gnostic poem ‘The Hymn of the Pearl’, from the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, describing a prince’s quest for ‘hidden treasure, the pearl symbolizing a part of his inner self that has been lost and must be found’. It is unfortunate that a lack of cross-referencing means that Ronna Johnson’s essay ‘Gender, Race, and Narrative in On the Road’, which also references the pearl, does so without explaining its meaning. Otherwise, this is a particularly dense essay which dissects the sexual politics of On the Road and the counter-culture with admirable clarity and not a little passion. In so doing her argument that the novel ‘blames women for patriarchal resistance to maverick male desire’ narrativizing a ‘displacement of authority that allows the protagonists to enact their rebellion against the Father/patriarchy at a remove’ is superbly contextualized within the traditional American male road/sea adventures of Herman Melville and Mark Twain. At this point students might be directed to Leslie A Fiedler’s 1960 Love and Death in the American Novel, which set the mould for the debate on homosocial bonding at female expense, and the Freudian father /son struggle, with a withering analysis of Kerouac’s novel.
Eric Keenaghan’s essay linking Beat and Black Mountain School poetics provides a succinct history of the latter, the concept of Charles Olson’s Projective verse, and the vital importance of poetic language as a guide to human survival since ‘social and cultural politics inhere in aesthetic forms, how a poem is written has lasting consequences’. His classroom reading list is concise, with Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry (1960) the primary resource. The essay concludes with a fascinating and insightful reading of Diane di Prima, encouraging animated student discussion about gender equality, sexual freedom, and reproductive rights. Contrastingly, Estíbaliz Encarnación-Pinedo’s essay on ruth weiss makes demands upon teachers as much as students, requiring familiarity with the concept of ‘Expanded Cinema’ as an entry point to the complex relationship between Beat writers and the visual arts. Her concluding three pages on weiss’s 1961 film The Brink make for the most persuasive part of her argument; a viewing of the film should spark discussion about image, music, and narration prior to positioning it within the rhetoric and aesthetic principles of Expanded Cinema. Incidentally, Encarnación-Pinedo’s passing mention of Preston Whaley’s 2004 book, Blows Like a Horn, deserves following up for its detailed exegesis of The Brink , where, in his words, ‘weiss’s art throws a party for the senses’, taking in jazz, painting and film. Writing about Beat women’s’ creative nonfiction, Mary Paniccia Carden celebrates journal keeping and recording the poetry of the everyday. In her reading of the aesthetic and ideological value of life-writing, Joanne Kyger and Joyce Johnson are given deserved equal billing with their male peers, at times to the latter’s dominating patriarchal detriment. Indeed, Kyger’s The Japan and India Journals acquire here the status of required reading, as does Johnson’s Minor Characters. Johnson’s book becomes a sensitive feminist corrective to On the Road, although once again that famous line about ‘the pearl would be handed to me’ slips by without analysis. Oh, but just how great, and deserved, is Carden’s feminist put-down of John Holmes’s preface to his 1952 novel Go?
Tony Trigilio’s ‘Teaching the Techno-Poetics of Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra”’ is to be warmly welcomed for its readiness to bring a much needed element of fun into classroom practice. The groundwork is laid by a necessary exposure of Beat poetry’s engagement with historical forces, alongside a review of Ginsberg’s on-the-road embracing of the tape recorder for the recovery of authentic speech. Triglio’s extension of Ginsberg’s theory/praxis to the students own home recordings of a form of Yoga poetics, accompanied, as was Ginsberg’s tape, by background noise, is heart-warming in successfully bringing Beat poetics to life off the printed page. Darrin Pradittatsanee’s brief account of the history of American Buddhism gives the necessary context for a discussion of The Dharma Bums and the Diamond Sutra, in the course of which the similarities between the two texts become clear. Students might constructively compare Pradittatsanee’s depiction of Gary Snyder as the fictional Japhy Rider with the account of his and Kyger’s relationship in Carden’s essay, and their perception of any male/female binary inherent in Buddhist ethics.
Eric Mortenson’s ‘Drug Use and Beat Writers’ tackles this most socially and politically contentiously pressing issue of public policy in America with clarity, comprehensiveness, and empathy. Countering a central argument that reading about Beat drug culture might encourage drug (mis)use, Mortenson speculates that reading offers a form of vicarious and safe distanced experience, one that can be debated in the wider context of such well-known films and television series as Pulp Fiction and Breaking Bad. He meets head on the more disreputable aspects of Beat drug culture, such as child neglect in On the Road, whilst countering this negative with a debatable positive female egalitarianism, challenging a masculine dominated genre in , say, di Prima’s My Life as a Woman (2001). It is salutary to be reminded that the European literary drug experience pre-dated that of the Beats, but their influence on a wider public was necessarily limited because, whereas they had only pen and paper for dissemination of their visionary insights, the Beat experience now reaches out to film and popular music where the influence on the young is at its greatest. Teachers need to carefully differentiate between mind-expanding none-addictive drugs, such as LSD, and physically destructive substances such as opiates, if any classroom discussion of the merits of Beat poetics is not to be lost in a wider public health policy debate. This model essay makes a plea for openness and honesty in teaching controversial topics that resonates across Beat genres.
Katherine Streips (re)think on teaching Naked Lunch in the context of theories of humanism, posthumanism, and transhumanism expands on Mortenson’s concerns by approaching the physical state of the drug addict through a number of theoretical readings. Her modernist and poststructuralist readings are suitably Burroughsian in their challenging approach, such that the novice teacher/reader might be advised to navigate them by first discussing Striep’s notion of the collaborative nature of Beat aesthetics, followed by a viewing of David Cronenberg’s 2004 film version of Naked Lunch. The collection’s section on ‘Beat literary Topics’ concludes with Hassan Melehy’s pioneering research on Kerouac’s bilingualism. This essay’s ready approachability is signalled by such playful asides as contrasting Marcel Proust’s writing in the bed with Kerouac’s writing on the road. Questions of outsider status, the cultural price of assimilation, heritage, appropriation of indigenous cultures, and racism are all explored. Melehy, along with several other contributors, looks at the fifteen days Kerouac spent in the San Joaquin Valley, although without a mention of the real-life Bea Franco upon whom the fictional Terry of On the Road is based. The omission is regrettable because it passes on the opportunity to introduce readers to the immersive blending of fact and fiction in Tim Z. Hernandez’s rescuing of Terry/Bea from near obscurity in Manana Means Heaven (2013). Hernandez’s faction offers young readers in particular an entertaining but stark realisation of Kerouac’s White privilege and the Otherness of the doubly deprived feminist Chicano experience. (My article on Bea Franco in Beat Scene, Winter 2020 was inspired by a passing reference to Hernandez’s novel in Steven Belletto’s 2020 study, The Beats: a Literary History.) But Melehy’s piece does have the considerable merit of directing students to further explore Kerouac’s bilingualism in his newly translated and published French texts in Todd Tietchen’s The Unknown Kerouac (2016).
‘The Reciprocal Classroom’, Roseanne Giannini Quinn’s practical take on teaching Diane di Prima, is very much about the marginalised Italian-American experience. Quinn’s classroom becomes a space for personal exploration, a safe haven from sexual violence, a forum for discussing di Prima’s openness in the context of her students’ own often disadvantaged lives. The section on viewing the The Poetry Deal: A Film with Diane di Prima, and the subsequent student-led creative work it engendered, including personalized book cover design, has wider application across Beat genres. Jimmy Fazzino’s ‘Teaching the Road Novel with Jack Kerouac’ suggests introducing the topic of road narratives with an appreciation of older forms and folk traditions that demonstrate their universality — Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims, for example, are very much on the road. Fazzino’s alignment of On the Road with later American texts, concluding with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, is an important reminder that teachers should always attempt to ‘make it new’, as well as prompting U.K. academics to introduce road novels such as Russell Hoban’s apocalyptic road novel Ridley Walker (1980) into the syllabus. What fun for us in the U.K. to piece together an Anglo-American crossword puzzle by linking the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour trip in a bus, and the psychedelic river, with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters? A viewing of both trips film footage would segue neatly into Leslie Stewart Curtis’s chapter on the visual arts. Many Beat writers experimented with painting, photography, film and even music. I wholeheartedly concur with Fazzino’s recommendation of the 2015 reprint of Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna’s Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle for a comprehensive and beautifully illustrated account of Beat cross-over art. His inclusion of John Cage within the Beat orbit is questionable, although his readiness to perform Cage’s 4’ 33” in the classroom as an introduction to Buddhist ideas gets my vote for fun. As for Beat composers, I would urge helping students discover Harry Partch, whose music associated with word and dance has a European counterpart in Carl Orff. For some eight years Partch lived the hobo life of riding the rails, identifying him with the Beat generation, and whose 1943 U.S. Highball is a musical commentary, complete with fragments of hobo dialogue, random thoughts, and wayside graffiti proleptic of Ginsberg’s Wichita Vortex Sutra.
Amy Friedman’s essay on the comedy in Beat writing and its influence on liberalizing social attitudes through a radical redefining of the reach of entertainment makes for a neat coda to Fazzino’s take on art. Especially welcome is her interpretation of Kerouac’s depiction of Dean Moriarty as a slapstick comedic textual equivalent to Charles Chaplin and the Three Stooges, a comparison that is brilliantly developed in William Solomon’s Slapstick Modernism: Chaplin to Kerouac to Iggy Pop (2018).In the interest of student fun I might also recommend the accessible The Beats: A Graphic History (2009), particularly the section on Slim Brundage and his comedic-anarchic College of Complexes. There is,however, nothing to laugh about in Eric Strand’s political essay on ‘Teaching Jack Kerouac in a decolonizing South African University’. Poverty, discrimination, lack of job opportunities, all contribute to the contested value of a Humanities degree. These problems are not unique to South Africa — there are economic echoes of the ‘I don’t care about Chaucer!’ student rejection of a Eurocentric curriculum to the threatened state of Chaucer studies in the U.K. And Strand structures his polemic around the 2015 throwing of excrement at the statue of Cecil Rhodes above the entrance to University of Cape Town, which predates the contested debate about the removal of statues celebrating slave owners here and in the States. I would recommend reading Stand alongside Eric Mortenson’s Translating the Counter Culture: The Reception of the Beats in Turkey (2018,) which interrogates in detail the studying of On the Road as a model for dissent, whilst warning of the complexities thrown up by specific cultural contexts. But Strand’s concluding remarks have an urgent universal application: ‘… one of the enduring legacies of Beat writers …. that Kerouac, as well as Malcolm X, was of a mind with the South African student movement regarding the value of a free higher education’.
By way of contrast, William Mohr’s ‘Teaching Venice West, Lawrence Lipton, and California’s Literary Canon’ is very much a micro-focused rehabilitation of Venice West as an Utopian Beat outpost. A guarded appreciation of Lawrence Lipton’s self-promoting The Holy Barbarians (1959) kick-starts Mohr’s reversal of the 1970s/1980s critical neglect of Venice West in Beat scholarship. Nevertheless, some 60 years on, Lipton’s pioneering book remains eminently readable whilst open to introductory classroom critique on a number of levels. Mohr makes a convincing case for looking at Lipton’s transcriptions of conversations with Venice West poets such as Stuart Perkoff, Bruce Boyd, and Charley Foster. Mohr is to be commended for drawing attention to Perkoff’s ‘Feasts of Death, Feasts of Love’, which he reads as the first long, experimental poem written about the holocaust, and which makes for a fascinating comparison with Gary Snyder’s ‘Praise for Sick Women’, published alongside it in Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 ( 1999 reprint). In referencing Perkoff’s 1950’s poem, ‘untitled’, taking the Three Stooges on to the Venice Boardwalk , Mohr convincingly links Venice West to a much broader polity that includes Kerouac, popular culture, homosocial bonding ( quoting the work of Michael Davidson), and the politics of the street.
Street politics is central to ‘Beat Performance Poetry’ as critiqued in Deborah Geis’s essay, which is very much of the moment in its plea for extending the public boundaries for where poetry can be heard. She credits the Beat poets with pioneering the movement of poetry readings from elite European salons to public spaces where physical motion as part of the performance can be given free reign, citing the popularity of Slam poetry competitions. The contradiction here is that today Geis sees her students as alienated from the experience of live performance and addicted to social media. In outlining a corrective to this disconnect Geis offer a number of eminently practical, and importantly, potentially socially enjoyable, pedagogical practices, whilst maintaining a high standard of more conventional textual criticism. Ranging from a discussion of the socio-political power of artistic silence via, say, Cage’s work and Bob Kaufman’s ‘silent beat in between the drums’ — taken out of the classroom and in to the local coffee house — to various combinations of in-class poetry performances, in Geis’s hands Beat poetry lives. In this context of renewal John Whalen-Bridge’s essay ‘Connecting Youthful Dissent and the Global Ecological Future when Teaching the Work of Gary Snyder’ is an apt last word. Snyder believes that the real function of poetry is not solely the work of social change evident in many of the foregoing essays, but also the work of reconfiguring our perceptions in the energy exchanges that bond us to all living matter. Snyder’s concern with Deep Ecology leads Whalen-Bridge to figure his writing as ‘Beat in a liminal way’ when compared to the largely urban rebellion of the original Beat generation. This contention immediately offers scope for lively classroom debate, starting with Whalen-Bridge’s syllabus introduction of Snyder’s 6 Gallery reading of ‘Berry Feast’, further informed, I would suggest, by such studies as Rod Philip’s ‘Forest Beatniks’ and ‘Urban Thoreaus’ (2000), and more recently Chad Weidner’s The Green Ghost: William Burroughs and the Ecological Mind (2016). Whalen-Bridge’s choice of poems for close study is an exemplary example of selecting precisely those texts that both allow for an appreciation of text as structure and as ethical/ideological guides to personal conduct in a sustainable bio-diverse world – ‘Milton by Firelight’, ‘ Sourdough Mountain Lookout’, ‘Riprap’. The latter is unpicked in terms of gender, race, class, trans-cultural significance, revolutionary coding, cosmic consciousness, and Zen Buddhism. As a U.K. reader, Whalen-Bridge’s comparing of the poem’s ‘pared down imagery’ to a Zen garden immediately invoked thoughts of Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage Zen garden in the shadow of the Dungeness nuclear power station, where he reflected and meditated as in a Japanese Zen garden. The juxtaposition of a nuclear installation and a Japanese Zen garden without boundaries on the British coastline encapsulates Snyder’s poetics of universal ecological interdependency valorized in Whalen-Bridge’s conclusion that such ‘writing saves lives and improves the lives that cannot be saved’.
Grace’s collection contains an almost bewildering range of insightful close readings, astute contextualizing, and inventive lateral pedagogical thinking, charting the transformation of the Beat scene from its free-wheeling, self-help, heady revolutionary 1960’s days to its contemporary position as an increasingly respectable component of the curriculum. In the process, however, something precious has been lost by way of a freedom to live (and read) beyond conventional comfort zones, to challenge established orthodoxies, to celebrate youth as a promise that blooms outside the classroom. No syllabus can recapture the kind of street level transformation that so many of my generation experienced.
That conceded, studying the Beats today offers an opportunity to engage with perspectives and desires that are often alien and unfamiliar, challenging today’s young to make it new again, and this time make it better. To this end, The Beats: A Teaching Companion is successful on a number of levels; it is a noteworthy contribution to the ever-expanding field of Beat studies and, more broadly, cultural studies; and it is a collection that at its best gives hope that in referring to its ideas the inspired teacher may still be able to enlarge the lives of his/her students. And that 1966 Keele undergraduate essay? Its final sentence reads; ‘To ignore Burroughs’ vision of cosmic decay would be to forget that the author’s private dreams have often turned out to be tomorrow’s public truths’.