Previous Classes

Write About The Beats - and How They Effected You

Driving the Beat Road - by Jeff Weiss

SAN FRANCISCO — If they’re starving, the best minds of this generation can order $19.50 lobster rolls at the former site of the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Today, it houses Tacko, where customers can pacify themselves by listening to Phil Collins or gazing at a wall map of Nantucket. Old framed copies of Yachting Magazine hang from the new walls.

Slightly more than 60 years ago, the debut public reading of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” consecrated this Marina District landmark. Now, you’ll find a bronze commemorative in front of the nautical-themed restaurant that serves New England-meets-“Mexican-street-style” fusion to baying tech bros and yoga mom Yelpers.

In previous incarnations, it was an auto-body shop, then an art gallery where anywhere from 25 to 150 people (the numbers fluctuate in every retelling) gathered on the night of Oct. 7, 1955, to hear poems read by Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia and Allen Ginsberg.

Jack Kerouac was famously present, wine-drunk on Burgundy. “Go! Go!” he kept shouting. The following morning, City Lights publisher and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti cabled Ginsberg: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?” That evening’s fallout led directly to the full flowering of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, the cultural revolution of the 1960s, mass liberations of sexuality and literature, and eventually, a James Franco film.

Late last spring, I drove up the coast from Los Angeles in search of surviving members of the Beat Generation. Interview times had been procured with the poets Ferlinghetti (now 98), McClure (84), Snyder (87), and Diane di Prima (82), as well as Beat-adjacent novelist Herbert Gold (93). When I told people about my plan, the most common response was, “They’re still alive?” After all, the loose collective’s three most famous avatars are long gone. William S. Burroughs and Ginsberg died within four months of each other in 1997. After chronic alcoholism, Kerouac’s organs finally burst in 1969. Read more...

ALLEN GINSBERG: Notes for Howl and Other Poems

By 1955 I wrote poetry adapted from prose seeds, journals, scratchings, arranged by phrasing or breath groups into little short-line patterns according to ideas of measure of American speech I'd picked up from W. C. Williams' imagist preoccupations. I suddenly turned aside in San Francisco, unemployment compensation leisure, to follow my romantic inspiration — Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath. I thought I wouldn't write a poem, but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind — sum up my life — something I wouldn't be able to show anybody, write for my own soul's ear and a few other golden ears. So the first line of Howl, “I saw the best minds,” etc. the whole first section typed out madly in one afternoon, a huge sad comedy of wild phrasing, meaningless images for the beauty of abstract poetry of mind running along making awkward combinations like Charlie Chaplin's walk, long saxophone-like chorus lines I knew Kerouac would hear sound of — taking off from his own inspired prose line really a new poetry.

I depended on the word “who” to keep the beat, a base to keep measure, return to and take off from again onto another streak of invention: “who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars,” continuing to prophesy what I really knew despite the drear consciousness of the world: “who were visionary indian angels.” Have I really been attacked for this sort of joy? So the poem got serious, I went on to what my imagination believed true to Eternity (for I'd had a beatific illumination years before during which I'd heard Blake's ancient voice & saw the universe unfold in my brain), & what my memory could reconstitute of the data of celestial experience.

But how sustain a long line in poetry (lest it lapse into prosaic)? It's natural inspiration of the moment that keeps it moving, disparate thinks put down together, shorthand notations of visual imagery, juxtapositions of hydrogen juke-box — abstract haikus sustain the mystery & put iron poetry back into the line: the last line of Sunflower Sutra is the extreme, one stream of single word associations, summing up. Mind is shapely, Art is shapely. Meaning Mind practiced in spontaneity invents forms in its own image & gets to Last Thoughts. Loose ghosts wailing for body try to invade the bodies of living men. I hear ghostly Academics in Limbo screeching about form.

Ideally each line of Howl is a single breath unit. Tho in this recording it's not pronounced so, I was exhausted at climax of 3 hour Chicago reading with Corso & Orlovsky. My breath is long — that's the Measure, one physical — mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of a breath. It probably bugs Williams now, but it's a natural consequence, my own heightened conversation, not cooler average-dailytalk short breath. I got to mouth more madly this way.

So these poems are a series of experiments with the formal organization of the long line. Explanations follow. I realized at the time that Whitman's form had rarely been further explored (improved on even) in the U.S. Whitman always a mountain too vast to be seen. Everybody assumes (with Pound?) (except Jeffers) that his line is a big freakish uncontrollable necessary prosaic goof. No attempt's been made to use it in the light of early XX Century organization of new speech-rhythm prosody to build up large organic structures.

I had an apt on Nob Hill, got high on Peyote, & saw an image of the robot skullface of Moloch in the upper stories of a big hotel glaring into my window; got high weeks later again, the Visage was still there in red smokey downtown Metropolis, I wandered down Powell Street muttering, “Moloch Moloch” all night & wrote Howl II nearly intact in cafeteria at foot of Drake Hotel, deep in the hellish vale. Here the long line is used as a stanza form broken within into exclamatory units punctuated by a base repetition, Moloch.

The rhythmic paradigm for Part III was conceived & half-written same day as the beginning of Howl, I went back later & filled it out. Part I, a lament for the Lamb in America with in-stances of remarkable lamblike youths; Part II names the monster of mental consciousness that preys on the Lamb; Part III a litany of affirmation of the Lamb in its glory: “0 starry spangled shock of Mercy.” The structure of Part III, pyramidal, with a graduated longer response to the fixed base....

A lot of these forms developed out of an extreme rhapsodic wail I once heard in a madhouse. Later I wondered if short quiet lyrical poems could be written using the long line. Cottage in Berkeley & Supermarket in California (written same day) fell in place later that year. Not purposely, I simply followed my Angel in the course of compositions.

What if I just simply wrote, in long units & broken short lines, spontaneously noting prosaic realities mixed with emotional upsurges, solitaries? Transcription of Organ Music (sensual data), strange writing which passes from prose to poetry & back, like the mind.

What about poem with rhythmic buildup power equal to Howl without use of repeated base to sustain it? The Sunflower Sutra (composition time 20 minutes, me at desk scribbling, Kerouac at cottage door waiting for me to finish so we could go off somewhere party) did that, it surprised me, one long Who...

Last, the Proem to Kaddish (NY 1959 work) — finally, completely free composition, the long line breaking up within itself into short staccato breath units — notations of one spontaneous phrase after another linked within the line by dashes mostly: the long line now perhaps a variable stanzaic unit, measuring groups of related ideas, marking them — a method of notation. Ending with a hymn in rhythm similar to the synagogue death lament. Passing into dactyllic? says Williams? Perhaps not: at least the ears hears itself in Promethian natural measure, not in mechanical count of accent....