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Thread: The Beats revisited

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    I've seen worse. SuperModerator ColoradoGuy's Avatar
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    The Beats revisited

    The Times Literary Supplement of March 3 has a couple of interesting reviews of recent books about the Beats. The first discusses a book about Jack Kerouac with some information I didn't know: The Unknown Kerouac. The review also discusses two reissues of his books, Collected Poems and Old Angel Midnight. Kerouac's notion was he wanted to use language like a jazz musician. In his own account he was in the hospital for several months in 1951 with phlebitis (a blood clot). This was before he wrote On the Road. During that hospitalization he wrote in the copious notebooks he kept that he was listening to the "beautiful, sad long phrases" of saxophonist Lee Konitz and "he [Konitz] was doing what I'm doing with a sentence like hints of heartbreaking loss that filtered in with chunks of October daylight from the street." The author of Unknown Kerouac puts much emphasis on where that language may have come from and believes much of it stemmed from the fact Kerouac was not a native English speaker. This was news to me. I knew he was from Massachusetts of French Canadian extraction, but I didn't know he didn't learn English until he went to school; he first spoke a Quebecois patois, and continued throughout his life to use that with his family. So in a way he wrote English as a closely observing outsider, something that attuned him to the musical rhythm of the language. He even wrote some things in his native language just before he started On the Road. In the words of the reviewer:

    Kerouac's ambition to capture the living moment (crucially for him, recapitulating memory) developed poetic form in 1954 with his collection San Francisco Blues, and it reached greater fulfillment with the sixty-seven free-association passages of Old Angel Midnight.
    Later he spent a lot of time with Northern California Buddhists listening to meditative chants. Kerouac wrote this was "a multi-lingual sound representing the had-dal-da-babra of babbling world tongues coming in through my windows." He used extensive alliteration and assonance to try to capture this.

    The second TLS article in the issue reviews a couple of new collections of work by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who is the last surviving original Beat at age 99. Ferlinghetti founded City Lights bookstore and publishers in San Francisco; he published many of the Beat writers. The Travel Journals are interesting, but more interesting to me was the collection of correspondence between Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg. It appears that, although Ferlinghetti and Ginsburg were life-long friends, the former wanted City Lights also to publish modernist and avant-garde writers from the US and Europe. The editor of the collection calls Ferlinghetti "part Zen clown, part establishment man." He did share a bit of Kerouac's point of view about language. From his travel journals:

    Sometimes it is better not to know anything about a country when you visit it. Especially it is important not to know the language or languages. Thus every sound, striking the ear like a small bell or animal cry, without any associative meaning, takes on the immediate quality of poetry, with the percussive effects of pure sound in a void.
    I have always enjoyed reading this stuff, maybe because I grew up in the 1950s and dreamed of California. My small Minnesota town was certainly Ozzie and Harriet-ville. But my mother was an English professor and she found the Beats fascinating and a refreshing burst of creativity for the era. Also, my long-time agent took over the agency from her father, who had been an agent for several Beat writers and even wrote a book about them, an annotated collection of Beat writings.

    I think the TLS reviews are behind a paywall. If anybody is interested I can access them and send them to you. Here's a cool picture of Ginsburg and Ferlinghetti taken in 1988.

    Last edited by ColoradoGuy; 03-29-2017 at 06:29 PM.
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