How to Read the Beats

The so-called Beat Generation of American writers that emerged in the middle of the last century continue to cast a spell over poets of today, if only as champions of the poetic virtues of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Not many today actually read the books they wrote, though — the following I wrote in response to someone asking me where to start.

It’s probably fair to say for all the core Beats, except Gary Snyder, that if you don’t like the breakthrough works that established them in the late 1950s, you won’t like the rest of it either.

In particular, sitting down with a William Burroughs novel chosen at random can be a bewildering experience. Start with Naked Lunch (1959), a text that was originally a series of what we would now call comedy routines, and the glory of it is in the voice. Find some audio of Burroughs — Spare Ass Annie, for example, the 1993 album with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, which is mostly routines extracted from Naked Lunch anyway. Once you’ve heard it, you won’t be able to read the text without hearing him reading it, which is how Naked Lunch is a laugh-out-loud read like few others.

The real test with Burroughs is what you make of the sci-fi/cut-up trilogy The Soft Machine/The Ticket That Exploded/Nova Express (1966–8). Personally, I find cut-up texts more fun to write than to read. The books only get more like it as they go on — though The Wild Boys (1971) is notable for the sheer quantities of gay sex, even by Burroughs’ standards. The good news is that if, like me, you find the later novels unsatisfying, you can always turn to the works of Burroughs’ great British followers, Michael Moorcock (especially the Jerry Cornelius series), J. G. Ballard (especially The Atrocity Exhibition) and Grant Morrison.

The people I’ve met who really love Jack Kerouac’s On The Road all had the good fortune to read it when they were 16, or thereabouts. I find Kerouac’s novels to be of mainly historical interest — the poetry, which was (along with his looks) what his fellow Beats admired in him, is sparky and attractive. Pomes All Sizes (City Lights, 1992) is a great collection.

Howl and Other Poems (1956) is Allen Ginsberg’s literary achievement, and it is earth-shattering. Reading ‘Howl’ the poem out loud is a truly psychedelic experience and comes highly recommended, but be sure not to forget the Other Poems which are, if anything, even better. There is a lot more, from which Ginsberg fans each take their preferences (personally, I’ve never got on with ‘Kaddish’, but love ‘Who Be Kind To’, ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra’ and other poems from the mid-1960s). And he was, among many other things, a writer of fine journals and letters.

Gary Snyder is the only one of the core Beats whose writing gets stronger after the 1950s, and is at its strongest in the late 60s-early 70s (I like The Back Country (1967) and Turtle Mountain (1974)). He is the Zen hero of Alan Watts’ 1959 essay ‘Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen’ (not sure where this is reprinted, but is wonderful and well worth tracking down). Also thoroughly enjoy the work of Snyder’s partner Joanne Kyger, (As Ever: Selected Poems (Penguin, 2002)).

Although a crucial real world supporter of the Beats, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a minor character in the mythology, forming in literary terms a bridge between the Beats and the older and squarer poets of the San Francisco Renaissance. Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) is excellent, both highbrow and highly enjoyable, largely due to Ferlinghetti’s easy, self-confident pastiche of hip-talk. Also, his recording of ‘Autobiography’ on Poetry and Jazz from the Cellar (Fantasy Records) is simply the coolest poetry-and-jazz recording of all time.

Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, all have their moments, and each their distinctive take on Beatitude, but none of their work seems to me to have aged particularly well. Diane di Prima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik is not only a well-written and interesting account of life in the bohemian social world the Beats inhabited, it also contains a number of exceptionally strong and inventive sex scenes, inserted at the publisher’s request. Great reading.