It’s not the weekend, but it is the week’s end. We have some poetry for you!
I don’t know if American teenagers still read the Beats, but when I was a teenager in America, I loved them so much that for a high-school class I co-wrote/-assembled something called The Book of Jack (Kerouac) for English class. Sized for a giant’s coffee table, this cardboard-bound collage of pictures, quotations, inspired drawings, and scholarly citations now rests in my parents’ basement, probably where it belongs. In the late 1990s I was a Kerouac man and, to a lesser degree, an Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs man. I didn’t know that “the Beats” is a clunky historical term that many Beat writers disliked immediately, or that scholars have since partially dismantled it, and I would not have cared if I had known.
My literary spider sense tells me that most readers outgrow the Beats. That is, while they do not usually come to dislike that bundle of mid-century coastal bohemians, the Beats do start to feel immature, or at least limited, as one acquires more education and gets older. The same impulses and attitudes which made them radical in the 1950s also keep them right in the teen wheelhouse: emotion, iconoclasm, expressivity, the new, the raw, existential peaks and valleys, all those urges toward various modes of ecstatic alienation (1). In the long run their thematic and formal register also led me to Whitman, Blake, Rimbaud, and other poets Ginsberg and company admired.
For what it’s worth, the Beats grew out of the Beats, too. Kerouac became a pudgy conservative who hung out with William F. Buckley in the Sixties; the poet Gary Snyder spent most of the peak-Beat era in Japan; Ginsburg and Burroughs both lived well beyond their demographically median life expectancies and became comfortable old Literary Figures (2).
Much of their canonized work has not aged well, at least for me. Ginsberg’s best stuff (such as “A Supermarket in California,” his comically poignant vision of a Walt Whitman dumped in mid-century America) is very, very good, but it’s almost entirely from the 1950s and 1960s; and unfortunately this period constitutes only part of his hefty Collected Poems. Burroughs’s reptilian prose only sounds good when someone with a gravel-munching voice like William S. Burroughs reads it aloud. Junky and Naked Lunch haven’t kept their bloom: the former is impressive until you encounter something like De Quincey’s Confessions or David Lynch, while Lunch (which David Cronenberg turned into a film) is shocking for maybe 30 pages the first time you read it, after which it becomes a boring round of grotesqueries. I remember nothing Gregory Corso wrote. I do recall reading Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind on the bus while traveling to high-school soccer games.
The homie Kerouac wrote too much too fast, and a lot of his fiction belies a surly, misogynistic beef with the world. Try to read Big Sur or The Subterraneans without cringing, then perhaps sobbing—even in high school I realized that the bibulous self-pity of many of his male narrators was gross. Imagine Woody Allen as a Catholic drunk. I’ve never gotten through Dharma Bums even though I’m generally neurotic about finishing books I start.
I’ll ride for On the Road, though, even in adulthood. Despite its sentimental racism, juvenile grasp of women’s lives, and occasionally questionable ethics (it venerates Neal Cassady, or “Dean Moriarty” in the book, a boring, obsessive, half-literate speed freak who seems to not so much interact with women as inhale them), the novel stands up to re-reading. It isn’t merely a young person’s book, a white teenager’s book, or a classier version of Bukowski. It’s a narrative about America. Kerouac’s lyric intensity turns purple in places, but as a whole the novel is poetic in a way few American books are: we’re talking the empyrean, we’re talking up there with Faulkner and parts of Their Eyes Were Watching God and James Baldwin. More importantly, because great prose does not excuse imaginative thinness, Sal Paradise’s wounded longing, his conviction that a more authentic American life exists somewhere, resonates with a deep tradition of New World dreaminess and a distinctly American pessimism, of the Death of a Salesman variety. In fact, it points back to European romanticism and, if you really want to stretch the point, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Jane Eyre. It is Kerouac’s Illmatic.
But if On the Road is the Beat generation’s greatest single text, Gary Snyder has had the most consistent career. My favorite poems of his are mainly from the 1950s and 1960s, but he never fell off the way Ginsberg did, or tumbled into mopey narcissism like Kerouac. Although his experience is often the basis for what the speakers of his poems see, the texts are nonetheless more interested in the outside world, especially intersections between human life and the more-than-human environment. (Snyder’s 1992 volume No Nature: New and Selected Poems pointedly rejects the term “nature” as a European construct. DEBATABLE. Anyway.)
The poem we have here is “Above Pate Valley,” from Snyder’s debut Riprap (1957). As a young man he spent summers laying trails in the Sierras, and this labor (“riprap” is rubble used for paving and walls) figures in his writing. Note how the poem tinkers with syntax and elides certain expected words like the articles “the” or “an,” producing a notebook of observations with an almost physical sense of cognitive movement; note its ethic of paying attention to the world, to the world’s physicality as well as the human histories present in this material flux; note how the text flows from a believably human narrator but doesn’t privilege him, remaining humble before the world. Note all kinds of lyric greatness, y’all. Enjoy a marvel of American English.
We finished clearing the lastSection of trail by noon,High on the ridge-sideTwo thousand feet above the creekReached the pass, went onBeyond the white pine groves,Granite shoulders, to a smallGreen meadow watered by the snow,Edged with Aspen—sunStraight high and blazingBut the air was cool.Ate a cold fried trout in theTrembling shadows. I spiedA glitter, and found a flakeBlack volcanic glass—obsidian—By a flower. Hands and kneesPushing the Bear grass, thousandsOf arrowhead leavings over aHundred yards. Not one goodHead, just razor flakesOn a hill snowed all but summer,A land of fat summer deer,They came to camp. On theirOwn trails. I followed my ownTrail here. Picked up the cold-drill,Pick, singlejack, and sackOf dynamite.Ten thousand years.
1) When Howl was published in 1957 the Partisan Review retorted with a comically snobby, pissy, quite funny John Hollander review which is excerpted here.
2) And Burroughs was a heroin addict and chain smoker for decades.