Notes on Gregory Corso’s “Variations on a Generation”

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The Beat Generation was never supposed to become so big, says Gregory Corso, and that’s why it has such a stupid name. If they’d known they might have spent more time thinking about it. Perhaps not. It doesn’t make sense for it to be so big. Being “beat” is supposed to mean being an individual, the opposite of being square, which is when you’ve had to force yourself into an unnatural shape in order to fit into a slot ready made for you. All these people trying to be beat just don’t get it. So paradoxically it does make some kind of sense: an absurd name for an absurd movement.

“Beat” is not only out of date today: it always was out of date. As soon as this senseless word was spoken it was already the end. But the Beats went on writing anyway. They were never ones to think very much about poetry and literary tradition, says Corso. They were only interested in talking about themselves, and the poetry and novels came out of that. And as more and more people recognised themselves in this body of work, “beat” became about the world, and not just about those few who spoke up. We were all beat. And yet “all beat,” doesn’t make sense, since “beat” can’t mean anything collective, since anything collective means square.

It was always absurd, always nonsense. Something indefinable – and that’s the way it was supposed to be. Let history worry about definitions, while the Beats just went on creating art. It’s the work itself, and not any grand and lasting significance behind the work, that persists today for our enjoyment.

(I’ve been reading The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters and published by Penguin Books in 1992.)

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6 Responses to Notes on Gregory Corso’s “Variations on a Generation”

  1. jamienauthor says:

    Weren’t the Beats seen as a forerunner of the 1960s revolutionary generation? Or was that a claim made in retrospect, to try and fit the Beats into some kind of developmental timeline?

    Liked by 1 person

    • leewatkins says:

      Yes it’s all tied up with that for sure. But the Beat Generation was a literary movement, not a political one, and all the beats had different political ideas. I don’t know about “forerunner.” I feel like all this stuff, beats and hippies and so on, was all going on about the same time, all part of the same shift in consciousness, going off in various directions. Beats arrived earlier than hippies, but does that mean without the beats there would have been no hippies? I don’t think so, because I think this stuff was already in the air, ever since Henry Miller at least. So it had all been brewing for decades. That’s how I see it anyway. What do you think?

      Liked by 1 person

      • jamienauthor says:

        I only really came to look at the Beats in the last few years when I casually decided one of my book characters would have sympathy with the movement. The Beats seem to me a strange mix; they seemed to dislike parts of the social, political and economic order of 1950s USA yet didn’t seem to suggest any major changes or a revolution. Their rebellious attitude was in a way just a reflection of middle class America’s. I guess the students of the 60s were a similar mix, some genuinely revolutionary, the majority happy to parade as students but when adult life and jobs and partners and babies kicked in, they dropped most of it. I wonder what people will saying about the youngsters of the 2020s? Or has social media and commercialism killed all revolutionary ideas off? People hang Ukrainian flags in their windows, have cake sales to raise money, but how many have gone to fight?

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      • leewatkins says:

        If you want to hear some of the suggestions that the Beats made for how to change the world, I’d say maybe look at The Job by William Burroughs, and perhaps look for some of the interviews Allen Ginsberg gave during his lifetime, for example those collected in Michael Schumacher’s First Thought: Conversations with Allen Ginsberg. They certainly had ideas! Of course, it wasn’t a political movement, and their ideas were wildly different from individual to individual. Even from moment to moment. And you’d have to make your own mind up how good you think any of these ideas are.
        On the other hand, I think the young people of the 2020s have a lot of very good ideas. It tends to be younger people who vote for parties campaigning for climate action and nuclear disarmament, for example. They always seem to get out-voted though.
        Materialism and media are always going to offer up distractions. This is another theme you’ll find in Allen Ginsberg’s work! But I don’t think it’s killed off political activism altogether. And I think right now most people are united in a feeling of horror at what is going on in Ukraine, and an uncertainty about what anyone should do about it.

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  2. Hi, I’ve been writing short stories since the 90’s and have a few clips. Weirdly, a few editors told me I was a Beat, some published me and some rejected me/dismissed me as a Beat. But when I submitted to official publications/dedicated to the Beat movement, just regular generic rejections. To note, have never seen myself/claimed myself as a Beat as I was born in the 1970’s, nor have I ever intentionally tried to write in their canon/imitate their style. But have a style from journalism training where I write for ear and clip sentences dropping pronouns and determinators, etc. Never asked why they were giving me the Beat literary distinction, but have a feeling it has to do with this style/employed. And my point is I guess for some present day editors/gatekeepers Beats are not limited to those limited literary years/efforts. At least that has been my personal experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leewatkins says:

      Interesting! Thanks for this. Yes I guess the Beat style is everywhere now, so it makes sense it would influence journalism too. But also, I think a lot of Beat writing was itself echoing the sounds and style of the journalism of the time, for example Ginsberg would listen to the radio while he worked, Burroughs cutting up newspapers, and the journalistic style would have crept into Beat writing that way. So it’s difficult to know where beat begins and ends, what’s beat and what’s not.

      Liked by 1 person

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