[This blogster is getting frugal in his retirement. If this post looks familiar to any of you it is because it was posted in my once lively, now defunct, Jay Squires Writer’s Workshop Newsletter. I think it has enough general interst that it should be included here. Curiously, I had an earlier blog post entitled THEN AND NOW (A WRITER’S LIFE) — a title which I totally plagarized myself by using in my Newsletter (fortunately, there’s a law against suing oneself or I’d lose what little income I have in my retirement — I had that good a case against me!) Even more curiously, I apparently had forgotten I used this same title, though the content in the two articles was entirely different. Anyway … hence the PART II here.]
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(A Writer’s Life)
It was about 1961 or ’62. I had just moved from a comfortable room in my parents’ home to a flat in San Francisco I shared with three others, only one of whom I remember. His name was Joe, and I remember him because he, like me, left a comfortable home in Santa Maria, California, to experience life in San Francisco.
We were oh so ready to begin our suffering.
Joe knew one of the others who rented the flat, so he was given the only extra bed. I slept on a mat—I believe on the floor of the largish closet, though I’m not sure whether it was in the closet or whether that was my idealized version of where a suffering artist might sleep. In defense of my poor memory, it was over 50 years ago and we were only there a couple of nights … since I was not aware that I was to be expected to share in the rent. Barely having enough for the bus trip from Santa Maria, and not knowing the first thing about real suffering, as in working, or living on the streets, I phoned my parents to wire bus fare to me. Which they did.
While waiting for the money for bus fare, Joe and I did enjoy our own brand of suffering during those few days. We visited rundown bars on the wharf where I gagged down my first beer laced with equal parts tomato and clam juice. In the evening we pridefully donned our worn-at-the-knees Levis and visited more upscale bars where the beat poets frequented. I remember my heart racing at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s reading of one of his poems, accompanied by a jazz combo, and joining with the several others in the bar snapping my fingers in applause when it was over. The last line of his poem still resonates in me: “You! You in your Brooks Brother’s suit, you son of a bitch!”
It was so cool!
Other times we sat on the curb with bums, grilling them as grist for future stories and poems.
Joe was a much better writer than I. His poetry was full of angst and vulgarity. I practiced for the same effect in my prose, but to my eyes it was a diluted version of his. How could it be otherwise? I came from parents who loved me unconditionally. He came from a broken home and lived with his mother. My dad was a cop. His was a seldom seen slumlord for illegal Mexican farm workers.
In short, I was a suppressed, middle-class, spoiled, white boy. He was a free spirit, a low-born, poor, Mexican boy.
How much better was he equipped to be a poet?
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I feel so privileged to have wallowed, however briefly and superficially, in the Beat tradition. To me, it was immediate and it was unique—just as every person feels that his experiences in his generation are immediate, and unique.
The Beat movement of the 50’s and 60’s, however, had its roots in the Romantic Era.
The arts movement known as Romanticism evolved in the mid-1700’s, and had its heyday somewhere in the mid-1800’s. This came after centuries of oppression by the church and the state, where the individual creative person had little voice except to glorify and enlarge the institutions that wielded power over him. Man was depersonalized and subordinate. Then came what I would describe as the literary big bang.
Thanks to The Literature Network we have this quote that defines it:
“First and foremost, Romanticism is concerned with the individual more than with society. The individual consciousness and especially the individual imagination are especially fascinating for the Romantics. ‘Melancholy’ was quite the buzzword for the Romantic poets, and altered states of consciousness were often sought after in order to enhance one’s creative potential.” [Italics mind]*
Substitute “Beat” for “Romantic” and it’s tantamount to walking out of the Romantic door and into the Beat door.
The effects of my experiences persist stubbornly over time. The Romantic era, the Beat era and, yes, even the Hippy era churn through the blood in this 73 year-old body. Oh, yes, and in very proper Romantic and Beat tradition, part of me still mourns my lack of suffering, the accidental ingredients coming together at my birth, and my middle-class, love-induced upbringing that always kept me, and will keep me forever, in Joe’s shadow, spread out over 50 years.
Individually and collectively, we are cultural sponges. Movements and traditions are sucked in and are slow to drain from us. Individually, we cling to the belief that we are unique unto ourselves. Yet, we are products of the traditions and art forms that preceded us. And the best—the very best—of what we are doing today resonates with the collective soul to reach far into the future and play into the artistic lifestyles of those creators generations hence.
It seems appropriate to end this with the famous poem by John Donne**
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
* For the complete article visit: http://bit.ly/yOJyw4.
** No Man Is an Island, By John Donne, 1624