In a 1948 conversation with John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac said, “Ah, this is nothing but a beat generation.” The phrase, like Gertrude Stein’s “lost generation,” soon became emblematic of its time, though not all of its adherents approve of the label (Diane di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gary Snyder are just three of its detractors). What most of the “Beats” found in Beats at Naropa have in common is their connection with Kerouac himself. The book contains mostly transcripts of speeches and conversations held at what is now called Naropa University but what was originally known as the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. It’s a compulsively readable volume, full of facts and opinions.
We learn from Michael McClure, for instance, that “the evening . . . sometimes called the first reading of the Beat Generation” took place in San Francisco on October 7, 1955. It was the night Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl.”
Ginsberg himself, in a talk given April 19, 1991, details the importance of punctuation in poetry (which belies the myth that Beat poems were spontaneous to the point of recklessness): “Consciousness of punctuation is one of the bardic attributes, because consciousness of punctuation is consciousness of breath, and consciousness of breath is the substrate of poetry.”
A sampling of the chapter headings gives us an idea of the range of topics found here: “Women and the Beats,” “Kerouac, Catholicism, Buddhism,” “Allen Ginsburg’s Language Games: A Wittgensteinian Perspective,” “Bob Kaufman: Beat, Surreal, Buddhist, and Black,” and “You Can’t Win: An Interview with William Burroughs.”
One of the most instructive chapters is a talk by Diane di Prima on getting one’s work into circulation, called “By Any Means Necessary.” She says that “it’s really important to think about just using whatever you’ve got, whatever comes to hand, to get your work out.” It’s a good lecture that should be read by all aspiring creative writers.
Perhaps the most eclectic entry is “‘Frightened Chrysanthemums’: Poets’ Colloquium.” The participants, including Ginsberg, Burroughs, W.S. Merwin, and Anne Waldman, cover everything from poetry to astral projection to meditation to enlightenment. Oh, and typewriters.
If you have any interest at all in the Beat movement and its participants, Beats at Naropa is an invaluable keepsake.