During my brief and unpleasant stay in San Francisco, I made sure to visit City Lights Bookstore. The store is located on the edge of Chinatown right across from a strip club and was packed with people on a Friday afternoon. City Lights and its publishing company published Howl and became an important piece of the Beat movement. It even has a separate section for Beat writers, and it was from this section that I spent way too much money buying way too many books I was not sure how to get home. Even though their work can be hit or miss, I have always admired the Beats. I liked what they tried to do with language and literature: to celebrate and raise the everyday into high art; and that they tried to break free from middle class repressive norms and live life by their own terms. I also love a good road trip because of Kerouac and Cassady. Here is a rundown of what I thought about what I bought. Go daddy-o!
A Coney Island of the Mind-Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Ferlinghetti is 96 years old and still kicking around North Beach. He is co-owner of City Lights Bookstore and went on trial for publishing Howl. His A Coney Island of the Mind sold more than a million copies and is his most famous work. I found the poems to be uneven. A few I liked, but I found many of them to be a collection of words and bit too obtuse to get. I did, however, really like all of the “Oral Messages,” poems designed to accompany live jazz. I thought these were much more straightforward and touched on topics still relevant today like consumerism, materialism, and freedom.
Go-John Clellon Holmes
This might well be the first Beat book. Holmes (Paul Hobbes) tells the story of Kerouac (Gene Pasternak), Ginsberg (David Stofsky), and Cassady (Hart Kennedy) during the late 40s and early 50s before any of them became published and famous. Holmes was part of the Beats, but he was never of the innermost circle. He was more a participant observer. This book, which is not written in the “spontaneous bop prosody style” of Kerouac provides a much more honest depiction of its character than any other Beat literature. The core Beats were very close friends, and much mythologizing has been done, especially by Ginsberg, making it tough to know who these people were. Holmes paints Cassady as erratic and a user of people, especially women. Kerouac is portrayed as extremely sensitive and never quite being comfortable with his working class, Catholic upbringing and the life he was leading. Ginsberg is an oversharing neurotic who lacks social graces and a basic understanding of boundaries. Now, the book is not negative towards the Beats, it just tells a much fuller and honest story about them. If you are going to read anything by the Beats, then I recommend this book along with On the Road. I definitely want to read Holmes’s follow-up The Horn about jazz music.
Women of the Beat Generation-Brenda Knight
I did not buy this book at City Lights; rather, I got it from a colleague who was cleaning out her bookshelves. The book does a great job of bringing attention to the unsung heroes of the Beats: the women. Beat women had a rough go of it for several reasons. The men were mostly irresponsible and needed someone to take care of them. This job fell to the women in their lives. Due to our patriarchal society, female writers and artists were overshadowed by their male counterparts even though they were just as talented as, if not more so. Finally, the Beats were about breaking free from societal norms. This always has been much easier for men than women, and this is especially true in the 1940s and 1950s. During this time women who were independent, adventurous, and explored their sexuality could face being hospitalized and undergoing shock treatment. Knight covers “The Muses,” Joan Burroughs, Edie Kerouac, Joan Kerouac, and Carolyn Cassady who should probably be a saint for all she put up with from and did for the Beats. The book also covers artists and writers like Diane di Prima, Lenore Kandel, Hettie Jones, Anne Waldman, and even Jan Kerouac, Jack’s daughter. The book gives a brief bio of each women and includes writings about them and by them, many of which are published in the book for the first time.
Memoirs of a Beatnik-Diane Di Prima
I bought this book remembering that I had the Women of the Beat Generation at home. I thought I should expand my Beat horizons and read about some women. I thought this book would tell di Prima’s story in New York and San Francisco. It does, in a way. The Women of the Beat Generation refers to this book as an “erotic memoir,” that is one way to put it. I would say the book is explicitly erotic. Okay pornographic. That does not take away from the writing (excellent) or the importance of the book. It broke many taboos of the day and was brought up on obscenity charges. The book was not just what I expected or wanted to read.
Visions of Cody-Jack Kerouac
This is Kerouac’s ode to Neal Cassady who is referred to in this book (and other works) as Cody Pomeray instead of On the Road‘s Dean Moriarty. The first part of the book features word sketches of scenes around New York, then segues to telling the life story of Cassady in Kerouac’s spontaneous style. The book then shifts into another mode as it consists of transcriptions of tape recorded conversations between Kerouac and Cassady and ends with Kerouac trying to imitate the style of the recorded conversations. This book was written before On the Road, but not published until after Kerouac’s death. Within its pages you see what Kerouac was trying to achieve with his writing: imitating the spoken human voice.
Poems Retrieved-Frank O’Hara
Is O’Hara a Beat writer? He was a contemporary of the Beats, and his writing, jazz-inspired, personal, surreal, and about the everyday, is similar to what the Beats were doing. He is considered part of the “New York School,” which much like the Beats were an informal group of artists. O’Hara was different though in that he was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In other words, he was part of the larger art community while the Beats were outsiders. I am not ashamed to say I discovered his Meditations in an Emergency while watching Mad Men, and before I knew anything about him I thought of him as a Beat. His Lunch Poems (called this because they were supposedly written on his lunch breaks) was published by City Lights and elevated the common and even the camp to high art. While I may not understand some of his poetry, all of his work evokes a certain feeling and mood; sometimes you feel as if you accompanying O’Hara on his lunch break in summertime New York and observing the common for the first time in your life. Frank O’Hara died much too young, and this work is a posthumous collection of recently discovered unpublished poems. These poems continue to show the genius of O’Hara and remind the reader of the amazing things that can be done with the written word.
Here are a few pictures of City Lights Bookstore and Jack Kerouac Alley which runs alongside the building.