Monday, July 03, 2017


THE GENERALIST had other plans for Saturday which were overtaken by a tip off from Peter Mobbs in France who pointed me to a remarkable piece of journalism by Jeff Weiss recently published in the Washington Post.

Entitled 'Driving The Beat Road' its a great account of the history of the Beats in San Francisco of which scant traces remain (City Lights bookstore, the Vesuvio Cafe plus the Beat Museum at 540 Broasdway) combined with a series of interviews with some of the surving members of the Beat Generation namely Lawrence Ferlinghetti (now 98), Michael McClure (84), Gary Snyder (87), Diane di Prima (82) as well as what Weiss calls a 'Beat-adjacent novelist' Herbert Gold (92).

Published by New Directions. 1973.
Second printing. The Generalist Library
Ferlinghetti is nearly blind now but, writes Weiss, his failing eyesight 'has been swapped for oracular vision'. He reports that F looks 'vaguely like a bust of Socrates, bald, white-bearded and wise' but, having lived nearly a century, he has sustained a 'serrated intellect, righteous integrity and good health'.

His remarkable life story includes a visit to Nagasaki short weeks after the atomic bomb blast. Of this experience he wrote: 'The city had just vanished from the face of the earth. Skeletons of trees on the horizon. Not a soul in sight...all souls melted.' He became an ardent pacifist as a result.

Ferlinghetti, says Weiss, has never 'stopped wondering where we're going, what will be lost to history and what may never be noticed at all.' As for the future, he predicts SF will be underwater in 50 years time.

Published by City Lights Book. 1sr Edition
1963. The Generalist Library.
Michael McClure is someone whose works I know less about and this valuable profile and interview is a fantastic read. For instance, he collaborated with Ray Manzarek of The Doors over a 20-year period and became drinking buddies with Jim Morrison. He says: "I don't think there was a better poet in America at Jim's age". Weiss claims that McClure 'helped crystallize the modern Rimbaud mystic archetype that Morrison ran with.'

McClure is worried about the future: "I know that young people are striving for change but it seems like they don't know how to rebel or what to rebel against." So, says Weiss, what are we supposed to do?

"Turn off the television set and turn off the distractions. Turn to your most intelligent friends and begin to imagine what's really going on...If we can...start to feel and think together again and let our imaginations and inspirationsa go...that will bring more change than anything."

One of McClure's big contribution was to help raise public consciousness about the environment in what he calls the "early bioromantic poems" alongside the remarkable and enigmatic Beat poet Gary Snyder, who Kerouac immortalised as Japhy Ryder in 'The Dharma Bums', and who is often referred to as a 'nature poet' - a kind of modern-time Thoreauvian - although Snyder considers himself to be a 'poet of reality'

Published by New Directions. 1972. Ninth
printing. The Generalist Library.
Snyder now lives in a far-flung deep country sanctuary and is, says Weiss, 'a man who doesn't particularly want to be found' and later describes him an an 'outrider of the outsiders' - a beautiful and apt phrase. Setting up the interview proved a lengthy process and following complicated directions to Snyder's hideout proved equally difficult. It was worth the effort.

Famously Snyder went to Japan to study Zen and translate ancient poems and stayed there off and on from 1956-69. Some have argued that The Beats were the main transmitters of Buddhism in America. If so, Snyder was the key figure. Pithy and meticulous, he brings his Zen training into play, challenging Weiss to ask him questions that no-one else had asked before. Its a truly wonderful encounter which bears rich fruit.

Weiss writes: 'Snyder is as close as we'll find to a legitimnate visionary....whose prescient views on recycling, overconsumption and leaving a modest footprint are now accepted wisdom among all but the most gluttonous.'

Published by Last Gasp of San Francisco.
1988. Original edition/Olympia Press 1969.
The Generalist Library
Equally impressive is Weiss' profile and interview with the most prominent female Beat Diane Di Prima, who has authored more than 40 volumes of poems, prose and stage plays. She also co-founded the New York Poet's Theatre, operated her own independent press and ran the 'Floating Bear' literary journal with her then clandestine lover LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka).

Here poetic strategies are valuable. I like it when she tells Weiss:"My subconscious would tell my mind to catch where the poem had fallen down". She reminds you that you are just receiving the poems and advises writers: "Read a lot. Read out loud a lot."

Weiss sketches a vivid picture of this truly remarkable womsan, fragile and virtually bedridden but 'her orphic transmissions continue unabated'. He writes: 'Da Prima is one such rarity: a conductor of benevolent spells, a natural-born Gnostic, an antenna for arcane prophecies.'

Published by Simon and Schuster. 1993. 1st
Edition. the Generalist Library.

Herbert Gold is the first to say that he's not a Beat but his 30+ novels, non-fiction and short-story collections and his life in general interweaves with the Beat scene. Ginsberg, he says, alweays asked him why he didn't try homosexuality. "How would I know if I didn't like it'. He didn't like Kerouac at all: "Kerouac destroyed himself with alcohol by 47. Like James Dean, he looks great stenciled on T-shirts."

His 1993 memoir 'Bohemia' is packed with reminiscences about Burroughs, Norman Mailer, Jean Genet, Anais Nin and Tom Wolfe. During his time in Paris, he was mentored by Saul Bellow and James Baldwin. Nabokov considered him one of America's finest writers. All of which whets the appetite for exploring Gold's work further.

With this long-form piece, Weiss has made great and timely contribution, bringing valuable insights and information on these seminal survivors into our  consciousness at a time when they are needed most.

DRIVING THE BEAT ROAD by Jeff Weiss can be read and experienced on the Washington Post website. The text is interspersed with some great black and white photos and peppered with video and audio links. Its a remarkable piece of work which is worth repeated readings.

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