Gregory Corso’s Variations on a Generation, exploring what it means to be “beat.” First it’s about how to write poetry: beat writers use “spontaneity ‘bop prosody’ surreal-real images jumps beats cool measures long rapidic vowels, long long lines, and, the main content, soul.” In beat writing you’re free from traditional old constraints and the words come out spontaneous according to rhythms and images that speak to the souls of the poets themselves and to others who are “beat”. Allen Ginsberg reads from Howl and every image sings of the angelic lives of beat souls and Jack Kerouac in the audience shouting “Go!” to the end of every line as the bottle of wine is passed around and around.
But what does it mean to be “beat”? Because it’s not just about poetry. It comes to mean more. You’re “beat” when “the blather [is] knocked out of you by experience”. There have been too many disappointments, too much heartbreak, too much plain dull hard work and often you feel just numb, and you no longer expect anything better. You don’t talk theories and ideals anymore. You become quiet, frowning down, looking inward. “Beat” in the sense of “beaten down”, beat into silence. But your senses were alive the whole time underneath, and introspection wakes them again, into direct vision of self, the ancient simple wisdom: “Know thyself!” And with no more ideals and theories you can no longer judge yourself, you just take a cool look at your own actions, “notice what you notice”, surprise your own mind with the sudden sight of your instincts, your spontaneous thinking and feeling and action in response to life.
And then you know yourself and you learn you can trust yourself, you’ve been getting something right this whole time. You’ve been going with the flow: after all, how could you resist? You’re free now to follow your own impulses, and do so consciously –– do as you please, you won’t hurt anyone, you never have. Now you’re at ease around others, worrying less you’ll say or do the wrong thing. You start to write again, no longer afraid to share what’s in your heart. If it comes from you then it’s real and nothing to be afraid of.
You say: “Be yourself!” And it means everything: this new wisdom, this new faith you have in your own instincts, going with the flow. But it doesn’t sound like much, seems like saying nothing. Who else would I be? The simplicity of beat wisdom –– just be yourself –– is why beats often don’t know they’re beat. They deny it. They say: I’m not special just because I’m being myself. You’re you, I’m me: nothing deep about that. What’s beat? But the deepest way you can be beat is to be “so beat you don’t know.” Because if you’re really doing it right, being as beat as you can be, you’re really doing nothing at all.
(I’ve been reading The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters and published in 1992 by Penguin Classics. It’s a collection of some of the best writing from the Beat Generation, with interesting little introductions to each writer. Some of the quotations I’ve used in what I’ve written above are from the Gregory Corso I found in there.)