04 January 2010

Book Review: The Beats: A Graphic History

As a teenager and young adult, I really didn't care about the Beat poets. It's not that I didn't know about them or hadn't read them--on the contrary, an English teacher introduced me to some pretty rough Ginsberg works early on, and I plowed my way through Kerouac without much feeling. I spent summers studying poetry and short stories in workshops all through high school, reading modern works, creating original pieces, and critiquing the output of fellow students. I got exposed to some writers like Galway Kinnell that had a profound impact on me. It was an amazing experience, but I look back and think that letting teenagers write poetry is like letting a two-year-old play with a chainsaw: whatever happens is going to be ugly.

In my early adulthood I tacked backwards and compulsively read through The Oxford Book of English Verse (1919 Quiller-Couch edition, of course), certain that being able to pull up the odd snippet of Dryden, Herrick, or Wordsworth would impress the ladies. This was a losing strategy, while I mostly hid my knowledge of food and wine, later discovered to be far more successful. Ah, the folly of youth.

I never really appreciated the Beats until my mid-20s. It had to do with hearing Burroughs' excerpts read with ambient music on late night radio. There was a certain crazy charm to it, and somehow it made a lot more sense than it ever could to a teenage mind. I went back and read through some of those Beat works, and to this day I think the opening lines of Howl are some of the most powerful in the English language:

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,"

You can't fully grok that until you've had a few cups of coffee after midnight and have read the whole thing, aloud. Maybe shouting at a blank wall, a confused dog, or simply walking outside and declaiming to a sky "the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" (with apologies to Gibson, who was influenced by the Beats). It reinforced what that early, wonderfully corrupting English teacher taught me: poetry, like a play or song lyrics, has to be heard to be fully understood. Merely reading through the lines will only take you halfway.

Years later, my appreciation of the graphic novels of Harvey Pekar collided with this topic in The Beats: A Graphic History, edited by Paul Buhle with contributions by Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner, along with a dozen other writers and artists. I give the book credit for covering lesser-known poets, as well as the impact of female Beats amidst a hostile environment even within their own subculture. The first half is devoted to the major players mentioned already: Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs. But you'll learn a lot of new names along the way, accompanied by the work of multiple cartoonists, each with his own style and feel for the subject matter.

There's very little of the actual Beat poetry or prose present here, just the occasional quote. But it serves as a good reading list if you're interested in studying the subject further. More importantly, the writers and artists involved care deeply about the topic, and that passion comes through in this short but important book.


Joe said...

[the sound of fingers snapping]

Harvey Pekar?! The first I saw of that guy was on Bourdain's Cleveland episode. Weird. Dennis at decaturwineandfooddude.com posted about Lolita and Michael Symon on his blog recently, and I commented today about how my first glimpse of Symon was from Bourdain's Cleveland episode. Today, clearly, should be Anthony Bourdain/Cleveland blog tribute day!

Benito said...


I spent a good bit of 2008 in Cleveland for work. It's an amazing food town and I did several posts on restaurants like Symon's and other cool stuff.

If you're interested in Pekar, the movie American Splendor is fantastic and stars Paul Giamatti as Pekar (though Pekar plays himself as well--trust me, it works).

And let's not forget Cleveland food writer Michael Ruhlman!