Tag Archives: beatnik

UCLA Prof Blames “Beatniks” for Kristen Stewart’s Poetry

12 Feb

mc

Kristen Stewart’s poetry has been blowing up the internet. I read a bunch of snarky comments about it on facebook last night, and this afternoon on my lunch break I discovered via Poets & Writers that the venerable Poetry Foundation gave it attention on their blog, Harriet.

I wasn’t going to comment on it, but then I read, via The Poetry Foundation, what Brian Kim Stefans had to say about it:

My own initial post went like this: “The second stanza isn’t horrible. Worst part of the poem are those awful adjectives! Stupid Beats.” What I meant by this was that the words “digital” (applied to moonlight), “scrawled” when linked to “neon” (neon is a much overused word by poets who want to sound like Beatniks) and “abrasive” (applied to organ pumps) weren’t working for me….”

What Stefans doesn’t say and what The Poetry Foundation doesn’t say is that Kristen Stewart played the role of Marylou in the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Beat novel On the Road. Part of her training for the film included “Beatnik Boot Camp,” where biographers and Neal Cassady’s son, John Allen Cassady, talked to them about the real-life individuals the novel was based on and the time period. It’s important to state this upfront because the very critique hurled against her work is that it sounds too Beatnik. Whether that’s because her poetry does sound too “Beatnik”—we’ll come back to defining that word in a moment—or whether her association with the Beats fueled criticism of her work is up for debate. Maybe, more than anything, though, the criticism surrounding Stewart’s poetry has less to do with the work itself and more to do with her celebrity persona—which, let’s face it, is similar to how the Beats are reviewed. Even before her poem was revealed, the media has loved to lash out at Stewart.

Actress Amber Tamblyn was also in a Beat-related film—One Fast Move Or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur—and has gone on record about being influenced by the Beats. Except Tamblyn blogs for The Poetry Foundations’ Harriet and has published a jazz-inspired poetry chapbook, while Stewart, seven years her junior, revealed her road-trip inspired poem to the women’s glossy Marie Claire. This certainly says something about the difference in the seriousness and literary merit of their work, but it also says something about their celebrity persona and how they are received by the media.

Okay, so now we’re caught up on Stewart. In case Stewart, or you, didn’t know, Stefans makes his authority known at the outset of his open letter:

I’m a poet and professor at UCLA, and thought you might be interested in what some of my poet friends (most of whom also teach and are otherwise very accomplished) and I have been writing on Facebook about your recent poem published in Marie Claire.

I take it Professor Stefans is not a fan of the Beat poetry. That’s fine; to each their own. Stefans is actually quite an accomplished poet, and I particularly respect his postmodern innovations in digital poetry as he bridges the gap between new media and literature. From his UCLA faculty page:

My interests in electronic writing stem directly out of my work as a poet, though it has branched off into any number of art genres that have fallen under the persuasion of digital technology, such as photography, film/video and book publishing. Research interest include creating a “bridge” between the concepts and traditions of various 20th-century avant-gardes — Language writing, the Oulipo, concrete poetry, conceptual art, Situationism, metafiction, etc. — and the various genres of digital literature, including animated poems, interactive texts, algorithmically-generated and manipulated texts, “nomadic” writing, hacktivism and experimental blogs. Presently working on a series of wall projections called “Scriptors” which will appear as gallery and environmental installations in the coming years.

His research and work in electronic literature suggests his open-mindedness toward new and experimental ideas that may not yet be culturally accepted. I would think then that he’d find Stewart’s use of the word “digital” related to his own interests, but perhaps it wasn’t “working” for the Brown graduate who got his MFA in Electronic Literature because it was too obvious of a connection, the word “digital” sounding contrived or outmoded in today’s ever-changing technical world. I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment. His forward-searching eye may also be why he lays into her for relying on passé Beatnik clichés and the word “Whilst.” Stefans’ critique of Stewart’s poem is fair and balanced. There is validity to his point about “overused words” in poetry and even Beatnik buzz words.

My contention is with Stefans’ comment “Stupid Beats” and the lumping of Beat literature with “people who want to sound like Beatniks.” Yes, I get that this is a flippant response to pop culture that shouldn’t be taken too seriously, however the cultural knowledge of so-called Beatniks is wrought with so much misconception that it makes me uncomfortable to see a humanities professor at a well-known college perpetuate the stereotype.

Here’s a little Beat 101 refresher course:

  • Jack Kerouac coined the term “Beat Generation” during a conversation with fellow novelist John Clellon Holmes, in which they were riffing on the Lost Generation and their own generation.
  • Holmes went on to write “This Is The Beat Generation” for The New York Times Magazine in 1952.
  • Six years later, journalist Herb Caen coined the term “beatnik” in an article for The San Francisco Chronicle. An amalgamation of the word “beat” and “Sputnik,” the word, as conceived during the Cold War, was derogatory.
  • In fact, “The Examiner had a headline the next day about a beatnik murder,” reported the SF Gate. Note that this had nothing to do with David Kammerer or any of the writers associated with the literature of the Beat Generation.
  • In the column in which Caen coined the term “beatnik,” he was eye rolling at how Look magazine was doing yet another photo spread on the San Francisco Beat Generation scene, saying “250 bearded cats and kits were on hand.” So right there we have it that he wasn’t commenting specifically on Kerouac, Holmes, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and the specific poets or poetry associated with the Beat Generation. He was talking about the scene, man.

Let me put this into more current context. Caen used the word “beatniks” the same way people today use the term “hipster.” Think of the way people in the 2000s equated the Williamsburg hipster with the eccentric trust-fund kid wearing aviator sunglasses and skinny jeans and making really bad “art.” That’s the equivalent of a “beatnik.” They’re both pop-culture fads that aren’t wholly indicative of the art, literature, and music that loosely inspired these “scenes.”

Consequently, saying Kristen Stewart was writing in the vein of bad beatnik poetry could be a worthwhile critique and even a very interesting one if the critic were to delve into more specific examples like the use of the word “neon” (HTML Giant questions if “neon” is solely beatnik; I apparently already have a tag for “neon” because I used it for light sculptor Stephen Antonakos … was he a beatnik??), discuss the appropriation and disfiguration of Beat ideas and style (Stefans mentions a colleague who posted a response to Stewart’s poem that suggests an evolution of Beat literature: “If it’s ‘beat’, it’s more Bolinas or young Bernadette than hortatory elder beat.” [hyperlinks mine]), and analyze the cultural phenomenon of beatniks.

Saying “Stupid Beats,” though, is akin to saying “Idiot Pre-Raphaelites,” “Dimwitted Transcendentalists,” or “Insipid Oulipo.” It’s negating an entire body of literature that has resounding cultural importance.

You can read Stewart’s poem “My Heart Is A Wiffle Ball/Freedom Pole” on IndieWire’s blog, The Playlist.

Friday Links: The UK & Beat Generation Connection

15 Nov

Hope you’ve enjoyed the week we spent exploring the connection between the UK and the Beat Generation! Do you like these sorts of thematic weeks?

I thought I’d kick off your weekend with a few related links:

Barry Miles wrote about Jack Kerouac’s Celtic roots in Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats, and you can read that section in the New York Times

I wrote about how Lawrence Ferlinghetti introduced Kerouac to a Breton (a Celtic language brought over to France) phrase here

Carolyn Cassady was living in Bracknell, England, at the time of her death in September

Bracknell is home to the Bracknell Jazz Festival, which has been running since the ’70s

Pat Fenton wrote an article for the Irish Echo entitled “Down memory lane into Paddy Reilly’s,” which explores the band the Black 47 taking inspiration from Jack Kerouac and Celtic music (I think you can read the article in the print edition, sorry!)

Reporters interview beatniks in Newquay, England, sometime around 1960, in this video on Papermag

London Living suggests the best beatnik hangouts

Proud Chelsea brought Paris’s “The Beat Hotel” to London via a 2010 exhibition a few years ago

When England got The Sea Is My Brother before we did, I wondered if the Brits love Kerouac more than the Yankees?

What did you think of Daniel Radcliffe’s American accent as Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings?

 

 

The British Are Coming!: The Beat Generation’s Influence on The British Invasion

11 Nov

In her fascinating article “Won over by the West: The irresistible allure of Americana for post-war Britons” for the November 2013 issue of British GQ, Olivia Cole posits that imported media of post-World War II America attracted the British to the United States—and specifically points to influence of the Beat Generation.

This week I’ll be talking about Cole’s thesis in greater depth, but I think it’s important to kick this off with the relevant background information. My reasoning for this isn’t just that a lot of people may not be familiar with pop culture history but rather that by stressing the history we may actually come to a stronger argument in support of her thesis.

First things first, a mini timeline:

  • 1922: Jack Kerouac was born
  • 1939-1945: World War II
  • 1947-1991: The Cold War
  • 1955: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl published
  • 1957: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road published
  • 1964: The British Invasion

World War II and the Beat Generation

Born in 1922, Jack Kerouac was college-aged during World War II. As Paul Maher Jr., my coauthor for the book Burning Furiously Beautiful, writes:

Jack Kerouac set sail for Greenland on July 18, 1942 aboard the S. S. Dorchester. He had enlisted in the Merchant Marines and, if we take the romantic view of things,  was looking for intense experiences that could possibly stimulate him as an emerging writer.

Kerouac served in the Merchant Marines and in the United States Navy and was honorably discharged. England and the US were allies. I specifically wanted to reference Greenland, though, because it reminds me of the famous Beatles quip when a reporter asked the Beatles how they’re enjoying their 1964 tour of the United States:

Reporter: How do you find America?

Ringo Starr: Turn left at Greenland.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Kerouac’s novel was indeed an overnight success and influenced the culture of the time period. However, many derided the Beat Generation as tearing at American values. In 1958, the derogatory term “beatnik” was coined by journalist Herb Caen. It was an amalgamation of the word “beat” and “Sputnik.” Sputnik was a Russian satellite. Remember: this was during the Cold War, and Russia was not our ally. I’m belaboring this point for a reason:

The United States was invaded—culturally—by its ally. We had a British Invasion—on our music.  We did not experience a feared political Russian invasion.

While Beatles record burnings would occur in the years to come, the Beatles—the forerunners of the British Invasion—arrived in the United States, wearing dapper suits and singing about wanting to hold hands. Our allied invaders appeared (though anyone who actually knows their Liverpool and Hamburg start will laugh at this) much more squeaky clean than our own author, Jack Kerouac, who was writing about drugs and s-e-x.

After all the patriotism surrounding World War II and the “beatnik” fad had played out by the sixties, America was primed to look elsewhere—as long as elsewhere was still “safe.”

The British Invasion

The British Invasion occurred less than a decade after Kerouac’s groundbreaking novel On the Road was published, but it was not an immediate reaction to the Beat Generation.

The year 1964 is the year The Beatles landed in America. This set off the British Invasion. The British Invasion refers to British bands such as The Beatles and The Kinks (who were formed in 1964) but also The Rolling Stones (who were formed in 1962) and The Who (who were formed in 1964), not to mention bands who may be less familiar today but still influential such as The Animals, Peter and Gordan, and Herman’s Hermits, who dominated the music scene and wildly impacted the culture of the United States in the mid-60s.

Cole’s article begins with The Kinks’ Ray Davies’ new memoir, mentions the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards’ memoir, and concludes with Iain Sinclair’s new memoir. A little background information to tie them together: Richards and Sinclair were born in 1943, Davies was born in 1944. Davies and Richards were born in the greater London area, and Sinclair in Wales. In other words, all were born in the UK within a year of each other. While Sinclair is writer and filmmaker and not technically part of the British Invasion, and while Cole herself does not use the phrase, it is central to her themes. Let me state the obvious: These Britons were not peers of Kerouac’s. In fact, they were about twelve or thirteen when On the Road came out.

It’s reasonable to conjecture that it takes a generation for ideas to create momentum and impact culture. Beatnik shtick around the height of the Beat Generation—itself a marketing tool—was gimmick.

The ideas presented by the so-called Beat Generation took hold perhaps in a more powerful way as it basted in young, impressionable minds, who were more willing to see things from a fresh vantage point and implement change. The new generation of creatives could actually impact culture in a much more meaningful way. This is how we see that the bands that rose to prominence during the sixties were more directly impacted by the Beat Generation than perhaps the Beat Generation’s own peers. This is evident in American music of the time as well: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, born in 1931, was influenced by Kerouac, and Bob Dylan, born in 1941, was encouraged by the Beats.

Now, whether they all truly understood the message behind the different Beat writers works is a different story—as is that hopefully not-too-subtle remark I just made that the writers associated with the Beat Generation can’t all be lumped into one category with one thought. They were individuals and did not always agree with one another’s politics.

The British may have been inspired by the Beat Generation and their work may have resonated with the American audience in the mid-1960s, but Jack Kerouac wanted no credit for the hippie movement that followed. He felt that they distorted his views. If You Walk in Your Sleep…’s “Collective Memory: Kerouac Hated Hippies” speaks to this.

The British are coming! The British are coming! Tune in tomorrow when I talk about the relationship between The Beatles and The Beat Generation.

* * *

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

Stuff Jack Kerouac Hates

10 Jul

Erin La Rosa wrote a piece for BuzzFeed called “12 Things Famous Authors Absolutely Hated.” You know who hates something? Jack Kerouac. This, according to La Rosa:

Anyone who read On The Road and thought Kerouac was suggested to take up a beatnik lifestyle… you were so epically wrong. Kerouac hated his time searching for answers, and it’s pretty clear from the book that he didn’t find any. Kerouac was a conservative Catholic and always resented that his writing inspired a revolution.

Sucks for Kerouac!

She links to S. Peter Davis’ and David A. Vindiola’s 2010 Cracked article “6 Books Everyone (Including Your English Teacher) Got Wrong. The article says in part:

First of all, Kerouac hated beatniks; he thought they were a bunch of posers. Anyone who wanted to be a part of “The Beat Generation” completely missed the point. In his mind, those who were “Beat” were beaten down by society’s demands and struggled to find their place in the world. It was not something you chose to be because it would help you meet chicks.

“Hate” is such a strong word! Still, I think the articles further the important point that there’s a huge disconnect between the literature of the so-called Beat Generation and the subcultures of beatniks.
Not much has changed. Just look at the way Madison Avenue has marketed the heart out of the arts and music scene of Williamsburg.

Are the Beatniks Anti-American?

27 May

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAmerican flag outside Kerouac’s birth home

I came to read Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti with little to no preconceived ideas about the Beat Generation. I had heard of Gilligan but never Maynard G. Krebs. I associated goatees with Ethan Hawke and turtlenecks with Sharon Stone. I liked the poetry bit in So I Married an Axe-Murderer but associated it with the spoken word poets of 1990s coffeehouses. So when I picked up The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters, I had no presupposed knowledge of the writers in it or the culture they apparently inspired, apart from having discovered the book in a photo spread of a teen girl’s magazine. The kids in the spread looked like how I looked–or, rather, the cooler version of how I wished myself to look. That seemed as good a reason as any to beg my mom to buy the book for me.

I discovered humor and beauty and sensitivity in the words of the poets and novelists associated with the Beat Generation. When I read Kerouac explain the definition of “beat” as being both beat down and beatific, I understood and believed his words. It enlightened the way I read On the Road, and yet I read it sympathetically in the first place. I was a lot like Sal Paradise, hanging out with a friend who was wilder than I was. I longing to hit the road, to escape the humdrum of the suburbs and walk the city sidewalks of New York.

It was only later that I discovered that many others viewed the Beats and their work quite differently. It was only through reading biographies and nonfiction books on the Beats that I came to see that these writers were referred to as “beatniks,” and that that had a negative connotation. The term was a derogatory amalgamation of “Beat” and “sputnik,” and not being up on my history in my teen years, I understood it simply to mean they were “far out,” like a satellite in the space race. I had certainly heard of the Cold War, but it took me longer to understand that “beatnik” suggested the writers were somehow anti-American.

The idea of the Beats as anti-American took a long time for me to wrap my head around. Kerouac had written such a beautiful novel about America. He seemed so in love with the country and even made me fall in love with it in a new way. Before then, as the daughter of an immigrant, I had considered travel as something to do outside of America. I’d been to Europe but never the West Coast. Reading the Beats, I wanted to know more about this splendid vision of America they described. Sure, Ginsberg challenged America, but growing up decades later than him I was encouraged in school to think independently as he did. One could speak up in love. One must speak up in love.

As I continued to study Kerouac in particular, I learned about how he had been in the Merchant Marine during World War II. So much of what I read emphasized that he’d gotten discharged from the US Navy after being diagnosed with “schizoid personality.” It took more digging to hear a story like this one of how much Kerouac respected even the American flag:

At a party with Kesey’s Merry Pranksters Kesey came up and wrapped an American flag around me. So I took it (Kerouac demonstrates how he took it, and the movements are tender) and I folded it up the way you’re supposed to, and put it on the back of the sofa. The flag is not a rag.

The Beats were far from squeaky clean, but anti-American? I don’t see it. Perhaps the Beats didn’t jive with sock hops and malt shops, but maybe that’s a good thing because those 1950s stereotypes whitewashed the truth and left out large segments of the population. Some of us had fathers who spoke with an accent the way Ricky Ricardo did. Some of were intelligent but didn’t like stuffiness. Some of us liked to play our music LOUD. Some of us were friends with the outcasts. Some of us were misfits ourselves.

This Memorial Day, remember that many who died fighting for our country were just kids looking for a chance to escape from home or hoping for a chance to make something of their lives or desiring to be a part of something bigger than themselves. And think about today’s generation of Americans, those who may be a little rough around the edges or a little outspoken but who are so full of life, liberty, and justice.

You may also be interested in Memorial Day: Kerouac in the Merchant Marines.

Welcome to Beat Week!

12 Dec

The people behind the On the Road film are uniting a community of angel-headed hipsters. They’ve organized lots of fun activities leading up to the release of the film in the States. Welcome to Beat Week!

beat-week

Those of us who are passionate about Jack Kerouac’s literature may cringe at the use of the word “beatnik” and the commercialism of the events–the supper club event costs $95 and is a far cry from the cafeteria food Kerouac typically described in his writing; I’m not sure what haircuts have to do with the book or the film adaptation of On the Road and I’m pretty sure Kerouac wouldn’t have been able to afford the prices there–but perhaps these are simply fun events that will inspire a new generation to check out Kerouac’s book for themselves to see what the buzzzzzz is all about. And I must say, the chance to see Jose Rivera and Walter Salles in person is too good to pass up!

What do you think: Is this crass commercialism or an inspired way to engage the Millennial Generation? Is Jack Kerouac finally getting his due or are we headed into Maynard G. Krebs territory?

On the Bro’d: A Parody of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road​​

15 Apr

 

The only bros for me are the mad awesome ones, the ones who are mad to chug, mad to party, mad to bone, mad to get hammered, desirous of all the chicks at Buffalo Wild Wings, the ones who never turn down a Natty Light, but chug, chug, chug like f*cking awesome players exploding like spiders across an Ed Hardy shirt and in the middle you see the silver skull pop and everybody goes, “Awww, sh*t!”

So goes On the Bro’d: A Parody of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, by Mike Lacher, published today.  The book reimagines Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as if it were told by someone like How I Met Your Mother‘s Barney–a bro.

Contrary to the popular myth of the scroll, Kerouac spent years trying to get the voice right for On the Road.  Yes, he did pound the keys of the typewriter and turn out the novel in a matter of days, but that was only after he had spent years on the road and wrote and rewrote the novel multiple times, with different characters and different narration.  Neal Cassady’s famous letters spurred Kerouac on to write in a more confessional and conversational approach.  He worked hard to capture the feeling of a real talk, using words like “beat” and “hipster.”  However, Kerouac was well educated.  He did go to Columbia, after all, and while it may have been on a football scholarship that might make him seem a bit more like a bro, even as a child he used to ditch school so he could go read in the library.  While his work may appeal to a guy’s guy because he’s often with his “bro” Neal, recklessly driving, picking up chicks, and smoking pot, the diction and syntax in On the Road reveal that underneath it all he was a sensitive poet who saw the beauty in the color of grapes. After all, this is how the famous quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road paraphrased above actually read:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

On the Bro’d is just a parody. It says so right in the subtitle.  It’s not meant to be taken seriously, and the idea is actually clever.  Still, it points toward a common misconception people have of Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, whom critics pejoratively referred to as “beatniks,” meaning the Beats were as “far out” as Sputnik.  Keep in mind, Sputnik was launched by the Soviets during the Cold War.  Beatnik was not a compliment. Even today, many scholars don’t take Kerouac’s writing seriously because it is so accessible.  But his prose is poignant, his message spiritual.  He was not saying, the only people for him were the ones who wanted to get drunk.  He was saying the only people for him were the ones who want to truly live life to the fullest.  He didn’t like the type of brain-zapped people who said commonplace things and wore Ed Hardy t-shirts.  He said, “Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.”

I’m curious if you think On the Bro’d is a successful parody?  It seems like something that would sell well at Urban Outfitters, yes?