Beatdom discussion

East Coast vs. West Coast Beats

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message 1: by Seth (new)

Seth Kupchick (goodreadscomseth_kupchick) | 41 comments I'm writing this in time to the movie Big Sur that I accidentally found at the library yesterday, and thought very apropos since I'm releasing a book right now that is indirectly about the last unknown Beat, Hal Chase, who happened to live near Big Sur, but maybe that's not so surprising. I see a lot of people in this group are confused about the Beats in general, and I don't blame you. They are the last significant literary movement to have happened in America, and I'm not sure we'll have another one the way culture is fragmenting, but that's probably not for me to decide. The first thing to understand about the Beats is that they started at Columbia University, where Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Hal Chase were all roommates. There is a famous photo of these four in the '40's, and I was lucky enough to meet Hal Chase and live on his farm in the early '90's, the subject of my kindle/create space book "If so carried by the wind." But even if I never met Hal I would've been a Beat scholar.

I was born in 1968, and the best way I can describe the early East Coast Beats is that they were exceptional young men, the brightest of the best, and for whatever reason they fell off the rails and for the sake of poetry starting doing drugs, and hanging out with shady characters from the underworld, who weren't exactly their equals but offered them insights into the human drama, and the subject matter for their books. Not many people know this but Kerouac was involved in a murder with one of the early Beats, Lucien Carr, one of their gay lovers, since the Beats were influenced by Greek thought and life in general.

Kerouac/Ginsberg/Burroughs are often considered the holy triumvirate and they are the literary/poetic fountainhead of the whole movement, but there are other East Coat Beats who jumped in. The most famous of the second tier was Gregory Corso and Herbert Huncke, junkie jailbird friends of William S. Burroughs, the darkest Beat of them all, who shot his wife with an arrow playing a game of William Tell, but his parents were the wealth scions of the Burroughs adding machine empire, and got him out of Mexico. Herbert Huncke wasn't actually a writer (I don't think), but he was the protagonist for Burroughs's first book, Junkie, and that gives him creds.

The West Coast Beats were a much different breed, and though they may have been living in sync with the East Coast beats, I couldn't really tell you of many of their literary greats in the '40's, and the only name that comes to mind is Kenneth Patchen, who wrote a poem called "Portrait of the Artist as an Interior Decorator." It's also important to remember that some of the West Coast Beats started in Denver, though when I think of West Coast Beats, I think of what we now call the Left Coast, running from L.A. to Seattle and through San Francisco and Portland. Hal Chase was from Denver, and so was Neal Cassady, who embodied both the East Coast and West Coast Beats, since he was best friends with the East Coast guys, but lived a lot of his life in San Jose working for the railroad, starting a family, and always cheating on his wife, because of his incredible zest for living and sex. It should be said that sex and drugs were two subjects the Beats tried to really open up for American culture, and this would account for the East Coast and West Coast Beats, even if the drugs and sex were different.

I was taught that the West Coast Beats were a sort of preliminary hippie, stuck in the '50's. They were like Alan Watts and were all into into Zen Buddhism, the yoga of its day, and really mellow jazz. They were part of what famously was called 'the rucksack revolution' by Jack Kerouac in Desolation Angels, where he spent a month going crazy as a fire lookout in the Cascades, trying to find God, but getting head fucked about killing a mouse. The famous West Coast Beats were the North Beach poets like Bob Kaufman, who wrote one of my favorite books of poetry ever called "Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness," and Kerouac and Ginsberg have hundreds of poems celebrating San Francicsco. The most famous outpost of Beat culture in the West was "City Lights Bookstore" in San Francisco, California, run by Lawrence Ferlinghetti who was also a legendary publisher, responsible for publishing Howl, so the West Coast Beats and the East Coast Beats were linked.

I don't know if the West Coast Beats had a literary philosophy like the East Coast ones, and that's but one truth that may make them inferior. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, lived by the literary rule that 'the first thought is the best thought,' and they didn't really believe in editing. Granted, they were coming at this viewpoint from an Ivy League education in an era whose curriculum came from the primary Greek sources, but still it was a noble thought. The most famous example of this style was Kerouac typing On the Road on a sheet of paper that he never had to take out of a roll, and I'm pretty sure he didn't want one word changed. Burroughs claimed to write Nake Lunch in a three week unconsciousness. I'd imagine the West Coast Beats had a similar philosophy but their entire poetic structure seemed based on Zen haiku poetry. Kerouac absorbed this lesson for Mexico City Blues, his great book of poetry, except that his subject matter was so rooted in an East Coast working class depression-era mind, that he never sounded like a West Coast Beat, even when he tried taking it on. He was literally too beat up by the depression.

The West Coast Beats had none of the darkness of the East Coast Beats, who seemed doomed to a life of crime. In retrospect, I'd imagine any hipster worth their weight in cool is into the East Coast Beats circa 2015, and I was the same, even though the West Coast ones intrigued me, but they were either monks like Phillip Whalen, who just sounded drunk and silly staring at the ocean, a poor man's Thomas Merton, or like Lou Welch, a red wine drunk taking L.S.D. and writing like Gertrude Stein. Kerouac and Ginsberg wnated to be like the West Coast Beats, their children in a sense, but for different reasons. I really think Kerouac was a spiritual truthseeker and he admired the religious devotion the West Coast Beats were taking on, while Ginsberg really liked the free love movement and the Hippies, the second awakening who were supposed to take us to the Garden of Eden. The West Coast Beats were groovy poets, before the word was used up.

The hoods are the cooler Beats, because I'm not so sure anyone thinks much of the West Coast ones. Gary Snyder may be the most famous as Japhy Ryder in Dharma Bums, and I'm pretty sure that Jerry Brown, the Governor of California, appointed him to head the Deparment of the Arts, so that's somthing, but aside from him, I think the West Coast Beats will be forgotten. Truthfully, the most relevant thing to come out of the Haight Ashbury or the Sunset Strip was rock n' roll, not literarture. New York was about publishing and that's where the original Beats were grounded in real American thought defining democracy, and were inspired by Whitman and the idea of a new American renaissance, a new man, that Che would've been proud. of. Cassady was the new man and Hal Chase, my protagonist, introduced them. Wow.

I should end this here now, but I hope this sheds some light on the Beat generation. I know that their style is eternal since it's from the Noir era with a mix of hood, but they are more than their style. They are a literary high.

message 2: by Donald (last edited Nov 30, 2015 03:56PM) (new)

Donald (donf) | 17 comments Seth, Greetings, I read your post with much interest. I never considered there being an East/West Beat line of demarcation, but I guess it's valid. There are quite a few photos of Hal Chase on the internet. Below is one of him and Burroughs in the 1940's.


As to Kerouac and the murder - and it WAS murder - by Lucien Carr, I watched a movie about that recently. I thought it was well done. A simple Google search will get you the title. Also, I think it was mentioned on one of the posts in this group. I don't know if the victim would be considered a "gay lover," nor even that Lucian Carr was himself Gay. Carr went on to get married and became the father to a famous writer. I believe it was "Howl" that was originally dedicated to Carr, but Carr didn't want any part of it and told Ginsburg to take his name off the dedication. Carr seemed to have distanced himself from the Beats for the rest of his life.

I had to chuckle when you wrote that William S. Burroughs, shot his wife with an arrow playing a game of William Tell. It was actually a handgun. She may have stood a better chance if it was an arrow. I don't know who was nuttier, one who would attempt to shoot a glass off another's head, or one who would consent to having someone shoot it off her head. I do agree that Burroughs family wealth got him a "get out of jail free" card. There is a recent book about Burroughs adventures in Mexico, and the shooting is of course covered.

The "West" branch of the Beats drew from the "San Francisco "Renaissance" Here's a brief writeup:

Duncan emerg(ed) as the leading poet of this group even as he also belongs to Black Mountain. These poets, who largely became known through oral performance in the Bay Area, include the following thirteen: Brother Antoninus (William Everson), Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer, James Broughton, Madeline Gleason, Helen Adam, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bruce Boyd, Kirby Doyle, Richard Duerden, Philip Lamantia, Ebbe Borregaard, and Lew Welch.

Gary Snyder was also a member and I'm guessing Merwin was also.

You wrote "Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, lived by the literary rule that 'the first thought is the best thought,' and they didn't really believe in editing. Granted, they were coming at this viewpoint from an Ivy League education in an era whose curriculum came from the primary Greek sources, but still it was a noble thought." This is pretty much a definition of what a rough draft is, not a completed work of art. I know there are such things as Poetic and fictional geniuses, but my guess is that
95% of great art was pondered over and edited and re-edited many times. This is hardly a "noble thought" it's the mark of the amateur or the "second rater." You mention Burroughs as an example : "Burroughs claimed to write Naked Lunch in a three week unconsciousness." No one who has read a lot of great fiction, and who has also read "The Naked Lunch" would NOT quibble with what you wrote!!!

As to the relative value of the East vs West - I don't really have an opinion. The Beats in general did play an important social\political part in the 50's and early 60's. That is to their credit and I'm sure that will always be mentioned in the histories of that era. As to the value of their Literature, I would tend to think that it will not be judged as important as their Social/Political contributions.I may be wrong, but then, I will also not be around when that determination is finally made!

message 3: by Seth (new)

Seth Kupchick (goodreadscomseth_kupchick) | 41 comments I'm so glad you enjoyed reading this post because I thought I was really trying to lay the groundwork for a conversation on the Beats, though I haven't really studied in earnest for about twenty years, but boy did I study. I'm not sure of your opinion on the Beats but you sure know about them, and seem genuinely interested, and that's great. I looked at your profile (?) and deduced that you are very into poetry. I understand your anger at the 'first thought/best thought' line that Ginsberg famously said, but your consternation over it made me google it to make sure I wasn't making something up, but that's the quote, so let's talk about it.

Obviously, every artist comes up against the trends of his times, and is judged by how he/she reacts to them. The revolutionaries of the day buck the trends, while the mainstream conform to them, and the orthodox defend them to the death, since they are all they know. I'm not enough an expert on 20th century American poetry to really get at the exact mind for a poet in the late '40's right after World War II, but I have a feeling for the arc of American poetry in the 20th century, and it's to this I'm going to respond. In my opinion, the Beats were rebelling against the poetic structures, rules, and forms, of their era, nor do I think they were doing this just to be difficult. They wanted a poetry that spoke to their times like the way Be-Bop was trying to get at the sounds and excitement of a crazy cab ride in New York City, with all the sights and sounds.

Kerouac and Ginsberg (I'll get to Burroughs later, the most mysterious of the Beats), really did believe the 'first thought was the best thought.' They played this out for their literary careers, and perhaps why you think they won't be remembered for their literatrue, but their social/political ideas. I know that Ginsberg romanticized Walt Whitman, and I'd say Kerouac did too, not only for his literary style, but his big ideas about the U.S. being the last hope for the future of mankind, something that the Beats feared in what they saw as the dehumanization of the individual in the modern times. I did read a lot of Walt Whitman and thought he was great, and while I'm almost positive he seriously defied convention in his poetry I can also sense that Whitman was still abiding to meter. Like I said, I never studied meter, rhyme, or traditional poetic structure though a good friend of mine once tried to explain to me about a sestina! I respect that you don't like the 'first thought/best thought' idea that Ginsberg put forth, probably in the late '40's or early '50's, and that I learned on google was taken from a Blake quote, that said "First thought is best thought in art, second in other matters." The blogger who posted this apparently didn't like Ginsberg's aesthetic ideal much either, and rants against it!

I'd say that in the current aesthetic climate poetry could use going back to the source, and returning to meter, or some form of verse, if only to make the poets suffer (ha!). I wish that contemporary poets would spend enough time to really struggle with a line, and try to get it right, but I rarely get this feeling. I'm afraid Ginsberg's maxim, that felt very real at the time, has lead to lots of bad poetry for the past two generations, and the bad poetry might go on longer, and why poetry is dead and will be probably be for the rest of my life, and I'm not that much younger than you, or so I'd guess (born 1968). I don't write poetry that much anymore so I don't really have to worry about this, but when I did I'd spend weeks on ONE LINE, so I'm not necessarily an instant adherent to Ginsberg, and think you have to earn the feeling, but America is a lesser Nation for letting poetry go to the gutter.

William S. Burroughs is by far the weirdest Beat, and the one that other generaions have taken to heart more than Kerouac or Ginsberg, but especially Ginsberg. Sometimes, Burroughs is almost seen as an accidental Beat, and yet that's ridiculous and the proof is in that photo you sent me of Hal Chase and William S. Burroughs together. I knew Hal Chase pretty well and he had one of the keenest minds of the century, so I'm sure Kerouac and Ginsberg did too, or we wouldn't be talking about them. In fact, I'm willing to say that Ginsberg may have changed poetry more than anyone in the last fifty years, and even if you think the change has been detrimental, that's quite an accomplishment. Kerouac changed prose for awhile, and became a myth for many up and coming novelists, and now they are making his books into movies, so he's eternally in vogue. Burroughs...... well, he's the deepest guy ever, but I'm not sure he'd disagree with what I said, since I heard he had 13 peronalities!

Thanks for the message and I hope it sparks conversation.

message 4: by David (new)

David (beatdom) | 62 comments Mod
Thanks for kickstarting this group, Seth. I seldom check in on Goodreads and was delighted to see some enthusiastic discussion here.

About the Beat Generation - it really is hard to define, isn't it? Your point about East and West is interesting. I'd love to have something on that topic in Beatdom. It's angle from which I hadn't given much thought. I liked Bill Morgan's assessment, which I can't copy and paste and am too lazy to rewrite here:

As for the "first thought, best thought" idea - don't forget how myth and truth blend. Kerouac brought this idea to the Beat Generation and held on to it, but he *did* edit his work. Sometimes reluctantly, and other times on purpose. Ginsberg took it from Kerouac with interest, but he was an obsessive editor of his work. He spent up to 10 hours a day working on poetry at times, and that was editing and rewriting - not producing spontaneous new poems for 10 hours. Don't forget that he was a well-versed master, having studied more poetry than most of us will ever read in our lives, so it wasn't just off the top of his head. As for Burroughs, it shot out of his head and onto paper, but from there it was chopped and changed and rearranged endlessly. Even the cut-ups were seldom purely cut up and underwent cutting. Spontaneity, to the Beats, provided inspiration but they were meticulous beyond that.

Very cool about the Hal Chase connection, too. I'll look for your book.

message 5: by Donald (last edited Dec 02, 2015 08:01PM) (new)

Donald (donf) | 17 comments Seth:

Greetings. In reading your latest post, the interesting point that caught my eye was your statement that you spent weeks composing one line of poetry. That succinctly is the difference between free verse and Formal poetry. Those who write
in only free verse have been spared the ordeal of spending a considerable amount of time trying to fit thoughts into a proscribed framework. Form can be both a straitjacket and a freedom machine. Robert Frost famously compared writing free verse to playing tennis without a net. Writing in a strict form actually forces you to think in a certain way that can
increase your creativity. So what does this all have to do with the Beats? Let me begin with the beginning of the 20th century, or even a little before that.

During the last years of the Victorian period, there began to be, among some artists, and some of the general reading public, a dissatisfaction with the Hallmark greeting card type rhyming that was popular at the time. I agree that a little of incompetent
formal poetry goes a long way. So, in the early years of the 20th century Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams and others spearheaded an assault to rid the world of this Formal menace. Now, as much as I have disdain for Ezra Pound, it most be stated that he was a technically competent poet, as was T.S Eliot. Dr "Red Wheelbarrow" Williams, well, maybe not so much!!. Although a person's character shouldn't be part of the equation in judging a work of art, for Mr Pound, an exception should be made. Pound was a virulent Anti-Semite and a card carrying Fascist. He did radio broadcasts for Mussolini while American troops were under fire in Italy. That he was completely out of his mind of course is a possibility, or a ruse to get him leniency when the Allies arrived at his doorstep. As is almost always the case in America when a member of the top 10% has committed treason...... T.S. Eliot was a great Poet. Unlike Pound who is probably only read today by Academic specialists, Eliot's poetry is very popular. One of the ironies of Eliot is that even though he was pushing a revolution in poetry, in his personal life he was completely conventional - religious, a backer of Britain's heinous colonialism, and, if memory serves me well, a Banker before becoming a fulltime poet. Eliot's, "The Wasteland" was monumental. For the first time, a poem came with the author's abstruse footnotes. This poem was not meant to be read it was meant to be studied. And studied it was. Academia came alive with the prospect that future poets would write poems that needed a commentary to make any sense of it. Boom times were here. So, for 30 years before the Beats took the stage, all this free verse and unreadable poetry was percolating.

Free verse was now THE DEFAULT. And the Beats, picked up on that default. So the great social revolutionaries actually adopted the STATUS QUO!!! Think of what "Howl" might have been like if it were written in formal meter and or rhyme - now that would have been revolutionary!!! Ginsburg's poetry is distinctive - which I think is high praise, but, except for the potty language, Whitman did most of the heavy lifting. And actually, the Beats were writing their poetry during what I consider one of the Golden Ages of American Formal Poetry. The number of great Formal poets who were of the World War 2 generation is staggering. it was a sort of renaissance, and the Beats were pissing on their parade without adding much of lasting literary value!!

So, to recap, Beat poetry was not revolutionary, it was reactionary as far as form went, it embraced the default, which was by the late 50's, free verse.

And, a few odds and ends. You were born the year I graduated from High school, so I think we're a generation apart, not a few years!

And as to creating a Robust dialogue on Goodreads - I wouldn't hold my breathe!! In my experience, 10% of the members of any group do 95% of the posting. And the leaders of the groups are so often absentee landlords, so that will be another mitigating factor against any robust discussions.

I couldn't resist, here's your "Spiritual Explorer" in action:


message 6: by Seth (new)

Seth Kupchick (goodreadscomseth_kupchick) | 41 comments Obviously, the Beats didn't do just what the Eliot/Pound school did with free verse and abstruse academics, since they wouldn't be remembered if they were so unoriginal. I don't really believe Howl would've been better if Ginsberg made it a formalist work. The Beats were Dada & something Pound & Eliot weren't, probably being elitists, because Dadaists were ultimately anti-bourgeoise and anti-academic, believing life was art and demanded a new form. A lot of poets of their day believed in separating life from art until the confessional poetics of Plath and Sexton, who played with a form informed by free verse and maybe what you're talking about liking in post WW II poetry.

message 7: by Donald (new)

Donald (donf) | 17 comments Seth: I'll have to take your word for it about the Dadaists, since I know nothing about them. On one of the threads in this group I mentioned something about how the Beats conducted their lives WAS their art - especially the "On The Road" stuff.

My comment about "Howl" was tongue in check. As for the Beats and free verse, that came about like this. I intended just to write about how the free verse conformity came to be, but then I realized that 40 years had transpired from the time free verse was given the Blessing of the Elites and when the the Beats started writing their poetry. Of course in the 1950's, free verse wasn't necessarily considered Status Quo.

No, the Confessionals were not what I was talking about. Plath and Sexton were not of the WW2 generation, Sexton was on the boundary born in 1928. I'm referring to the WW2 Veterans who returned and wrote mostly formal verse: Ciardi, Jarrell, Nemerov, Merrell, Wilbur, MacLeish,Eberhart, Karl Shapiro, Stafford... I'm sure I've missed a few, but the point is, there were a lot.(Actually, one of the Beats, Ferlinghetti, was a WW2 veteran, and had a pretty significant Military record - the following is from his Wiki: "After the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ferlinghetti enrolled in midshipmen’s school in Chicago, and in 1942 shipped out as junior officer on J. P. Morgan III's yacht, which had been refitted to patrol for submarines off the East Coast.

Next, Ferlinghetti was assigned to the Ambrose Lightship outside New York harbor, to identify all incoming ships. In 1943 and 1944 he served as an officer on three U.S. Navy subchasers used as convoy escorts. As commander of the submarine chaser USS SC1308, he was at the Normandy invasion as part of the anti-submarine screen around the beaches. After VE Day, the Navy transferred him to the Pacific Theater, where he served as navigator of the troop ship USS Selinur. Six weeks after the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki, he visited the ruins of the city, an experience that turned him into a lifelong pacifist.")

As to free verse orthodoxy. I always viewed this in light of Orwell's "Animal Farm." The Pigs overthrew the Humans, and then became exactly like the Humans. Free Verse was intended to be an alternative to the dreary rhymes of bad poets, but eventually turned into dreary vertical prose by bad poets.

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