Poetry for Southern California
Marc Olmsted Guest Editorial
By Marc Olmsted
What is Neo-Beat? A critical term that so far is very loosely applied to poets who aspire to continue the Beat lineage and, of course, are deeply influenced by its predecessors. I didn’t invent this term, but it appears to have completely skipped a generation—rock poets like Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. Dylan was friends with Ginsberg, Morrison pals with Michael McClure. Later New Wave rocker Patti Smith hung with Burroughs. Jim Carroll, who is certainly of the right age group, met Kerouac when Carroll was 13. But Neo-Beat came into the critical lexicon later and looked around at who was “surfacing” at that time. Jim Cohn prefers the term “e-Beat” to Neo-Beat, but that is as unlikely to catch on as my hoped “Wavoid” for New Wave ‘80’s rockers back in the day. In short, a better label, but we’re stuck with what’s gone down.
Now maybe that seems clear enough (sorta), until we examine what Beat itself means. Its definition works more in historical and geographical context than in specific form, but with a shared sensibility. Kerouac is its originator and main definer. He heard Herbert Huncke, Times Square denizen and drug addict of the late 40’s, say, “Man, am I beat.” Huncke meant he was weary, but was using a jazz hipster argot that also implied to Kerouac that his entire kind was beat, as in beaten down in the same way that the hobo, derelict, addict, thief, and struggling working class stiff were beaten down—by government, by society, by Time itself. Kerouac’s reply: “I guess we’re a beat generation.” Kerouac went on over the years to elaborate that “beat” also meant the beat of jazz, as well as beatitude, the pursuit of religious reverie that drove at least the friends he knew.
The king daddies of the Beats are, with little argument, Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Corso. The princes and princesses of the court include Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Neal Cassady, Diane di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bob Kaufman…add and subtract names as you will. Bukowski is often lumped in after the fact, as might be Hubert Selby, Jr. Bukowski came pretty late to really be included, but his work looks Beat and ironically is one of the most identifiable influences on Neo-Beat writers. This may or may not be a good thing, since Bukowski’s genius often succeeds within a poetry of shaky aesthetic (I prefer his prose for the large part). He is, perhaps, as Kerouac said of T.S. Eliot, “good in spite of himself.” Kerouac meant that Eliot was too Apollonian and revisionist. I mean that Bukowski is too prone to editorial language and unnecessary if clever comments on his own images. So imitating Bukowski has led to a lot of bad poetry. Anne Waldman came after everybody, but due to some magical twist of fate has become within anthologies the kid sister of the Beats, the sister they would have wanted to have and to fuck. Dylan and Patti Smith, similarly fated, seem to be the cousins.
So, "scratching the Beat surface" as McClure would say, Beat and Neo-Beat follow and continue experiments with sex, drugs, Eastern mysticism and Western occultism, with all the socio-political implications that such freedoms and their restriction imply. There is also the obvious fascination with mind and the record of mind—shaggy, blown, overwhelmed, transcended. It is a Dionysian rather than Apollonian path.
One thing that seems considerably less explored by the Neo-Beats is Buddhism itself, even with the establishment of Naropa University as an apex of Buddhist philosophy while still encouraging the Beat heritage. Ginsberg, di Prima, Snyder, Whalen (who was made a Buddhist roshi, or master), McClure and Waldman all received very formal training in either Zen or Tibetan Buddhism (or both), and Burroughs and Kerouac, though self-taught, showed some definite insight into a philosophy of “clear empty space.” Considering this, there has been little of a like-minded stream running through current Neo-Beat writing. The general public attraction and impression that the Beats were a bunch of “wild and crazy guys who liked to party” still seems to overshadow their genuine spiritual search and the actual success of those findings. Perhaps in this sense, the Neo-Beats are mostly guilty of trying to reinvent the Beat wheel from the 9/11 ground zero of our own Eisenhower-esque era. As such, spiritual truths may also have to be rediscovered, maybe born from Neo-Beat general suspicion in an even more paranoid time.
I’ll let you decide who is and isn’t Neo-Beat. If you like the Beats and write to further their lineage, bingo! And if I make a list, somebody will be mad because I forgot them. There’s also plenty of room for whippersnappers to come. As Ginsberg said in his liner notes to Dylan’s "Desire," “O Generation Keep on Working!”
Marc Olmsted was born in Manhassett, Long Island, and raised in the San Fernando Valley. As a teenager he began a literary apprenticeship with Ray Bradbury, who encouraged him to start his fanzine "The Autumn People." Later Marc discovered Allen Ginsberg and the Beats and corresponded with Ginsberg, who gave him poetic advice and editorial help. Marc is the author of Milky Desire, Resume and What Use Am I a Hungry Ghost (published by Valley Contemporary Press.)