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“Beat” is not only out of date today: it always was out of date.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.)