The Birth of the 'Voice': 1955–1965

From the Beats to Civil Rights, Lenny Bruce to Warhol's Factory . . .

There I am. My next review of a big Hollywood movie will consist of adjectives only, such as bad, horrible, boring, disgusting, stupid, ridiculous, etc., etc., interspersed with a few four-letter words. Our old generation of film-makers is so boringly bad and so outdated that all their current films, all unanimously acclaimed by New York reviewers, could be perfectly described by such a collection of adjectives.

The two most modern and most intelligent American films, John Cassavetes' "SHADOWS" and Robert Frank's and Alfred Leslie's "BEAT GENERATION," are still not released, and my praising them here wouldn't amount to much, since you cannot see them. But these two movies are so far ahead of all Hollywood and independent films that once you've seen them you can no longer look at the official cinema: you know that American cinema can be more sensitive and intelligent.

Let us be frank: if Hollywood films are boring and outdated, it is not because our "geniuses" are being kept away from the cinema; not because the scripts are being ruined by the producers; the truth is more simple: the horrible fruits we eat through our eyes and ears are just what their makers are capable of; what we see is their finest work at the top of their intelligence. And the sensitivity? Allen Ginsberg: "These media are exactly the places where the deepest and most personal sensitivities and confessions of reality are most prohibited, mocked, suppressed."
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Hipper than thou. Ted Joans, Village bard, at Café Bizarre. (July 1959)
photo: Fred W. McDarrah

'Run, Beatniks, Run!' To Mecca, 1960

By J.R. Goddard
June 30, 1960

see full text

On a warm, cloudy afternoon recently, the young flocked like lemmings to the fountain in Washington Square. They made the usual scene: sloppy blue jeans and occult amulets dangling from open shirt fronts; a bongo drum thumping and reverberating through the trees. But always on the outskirts of the crowd, where once a single police officer walked his beat, three or four now strolled.

Suddenly, great raindrops flashed down. A girl yelped and the crowd ran for cover. As disheveled figures flew by, the officers laughed and beat the iron park fences with their sticks, yelling: "Run Beatniks!" They were delighted. The tensions of the Square, scene of many a fight, beating, and arrest in the past years, had been relieved courtesy of God.

Most of the rain-outs wound up on MacDougal Street. There, in its coffee houses and bars, they became more definable. Most were in late 'teens or 20's. From other parts of the city and New Jersey, or from districts adjacent to but not of the Village, they had come to their spiritual home. For MacDougal Street is much more to them than a place to get out of the rain. It symbolized their non-conformity, their adventures amorous or otherwise. MacDougal is Mecca—1960 style.
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Daddios. A reading, at the Artist's Studio, an informal poetry center run by George Nelson Preston, 48 East 3rd Street. Kerouac, arms out like a Christ figure, on ladder reading from "On the Road." Left to right: poets Ted Joans, Jose Garcia Villa, Allen Ginsberg, Edward Marshall, Gregory Corso, Leroi Jones. (Feb. 1959)
photo: Fred W. McDarrah

The Dharma Bums

A novel by Jack Kerouac. Viking Press, $3.95
By Allen Ginsberg
November 12, 1958

It's all gibberish, everything that has been said. There's not many competent explainers. I'm speaking of the Beat Generation, which after all is quite an Angelic Idea. As to what non-writers, journalists, etc., have made of it, as usual—well, it's their bad poetry not Kerouac's.

Be that as it may, "The Subterraneans" (1953) and "The Dharma Bums" (1958) are sketchy evidence of the prose pilgrimage he's made.

The virtue of "The Subterraneans" was that it was, at last, published, completely his own prose, no changes . . .

Spontaneous Bop Prosody, a nickname one might give to this kind of writing—that is to say, read aloud and notice how the motion of the sentence corresponds to the motion of actual excited talk.

It takes enormous art (being a genius and writing a lot) to get to that point in prose. (And trusting God.)

Bop because, partly, in listening to the new improvisatory freedoms of progressive musicians, one develops an ear for one's own actual sounds. One does not force them into the old rhythm. Unless one wishes to protect one's old emotions by falsifying the new ones and making them fit the forms of the old.

Jack is very concerned with the rhythm of his sentences, he enjoys that like he enjoys jazz, Bach, Buddhism, or the rhythm in Shakespeare, apropos of whom he oft remarks: "Genius is funny." The combinations of words and the rhythmic variations make masters laugh together (much as the two dopey sages giggling over a Chinese parchment—a picture in the Freer Gallery). All this ties in with the half-century-old struggle for the development of an American prosody to match our own speech and thinking rhythm. It's all quite traditional actually you see. Thus W.C. Williams has preached the tradition of "invention."

All this is quite obvious except to those who are not involved with the radical problems of artistic form.


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