[A note to the reader: This article is best accompanied by jazz — say, Chet Baker, circa “I’m Through with Love” — and coffee. Strong, black coffee … we’re about to check the Beats.]
I’m talking Kerouac rewriting Buddhism, Cassady stealing cars, and Ginsberg letting out a howl. But of course they were more than their collective scribblings, and perhaps greater for having bared their souls on the page.
And now, 50 years after the fact, Kerouac’s rambling, free-form On the Road is studied in colleges. Surely the Beats were surprised to see their work go from antiestablishment to literary canon fodder.
Of course, neither the West Coast Beats (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder) nor the East Coast Beats (Gregory Corso, William Burroughs) could have imagined their prominent place in history. They were simply too busy making art, writing poetry and holding avant-garde “happenings.”
But here’s the thing (and I’m going out on a bit of a limb here): The Beats might not have happened at all, if it hadn’t been for a little help from Western North Carolina.
Black Mountain College “had close affinities” with the Beat movement, explains BMC and Beat scholar Jeff Davis. “The professors especially had strong connections. Robert Creeley, who edited the Black Mountain Review, was one of the first to publish the Beats.” Creely, Davis adds, “gave them some credibility.”
While stuffier universities eschewed the Beats’ free verse and unformatted, unhindered style, Black Mountain College — known for encouraging creativity — embraced their work. In fact, professors like Creeley and BMC rector Charles Olsen shared a literary ancestry with the Beat writers.
“They were decedents of [Ezra] Pound and William Carlos Williams,” Davis notes. “Part of the free verse, nonacademic lines going back to [Emily] Dickinson and [Walt] Whitman.”
But it wasn’t just a matter of publishing a few poems. Former BMC student Leo Krikorian, whose work is currently on display at the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center (BMCM+AC) in Leo Krikorian/Implied Space, the exhibit that served at the impetus for the upcoming Beat Celebration, landed in WNC in 1947. He studied painting for a year before heading west to San Francisco. In 1953, he and fellow BMC student Knute Stiles opened a bar simply christened “The Place.”
The watering hole lasted less than a decade, but it attracted poets, artists, filmmakers and musicians. It served as the backdrop for Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, and offered a jumping off point for the greater movement. In fact, Krikorian — though younger than many of his contemporaries — is known as the Grandfather of the Beats.
And the Beat goes on
So, if there’s a Grandfather, that means there have to be kids and grandkids, right?
“[Richard] Brautigan is responsible for the ‘Baby Beats’ nomer,” explains local poet Thomas Rain Crowe, who was part of the San Francisco Renaissance and the second wave of the Beat movement that transpired in the 1970s. “He was drunk in a bar one night and was tired of the noise us young people were making, and said, ‘You’re just a bunch of baby Beats.'”
But, according to Crowe, the older poets and artists embraced the younger generation for the most part.
Like many of his peers, Crowe had been part of the ’60s hippie scene, until it “all came crashing down.” Then, he says, “Eventually we all sort of migrated to San Francisco and all ended up in the same place. The Beats were in a sort of decline and they were glad to see us coming.”
The poet remembers Gregory Corso crashing on his couch. Crowe worked on resurrecting Beatitude, a Beat magazine started by Bob Kaufman and others in 1959.
For Crowe, rubbing elbows with and being tutored by his heroes was a remarkable experience because, as he points out, “It’s really the only literary movement that’s happened in this country, other then the academic writers … which is just more of the same. The Beats really upset the apple cart.”
Stuffed shirts need not apply
When the BMCM+AC decided to turn the Krikorian exhibit into more than just a quiet art viewing, Crowe and other local writers with roots in the Beat movement jumped on board.
“Originally they were going to invite a bunch of academics to come and read the Beats and I thought, ‘Oh, how dreadfully dull,'” he recalls.
Luckily, that plan morphed into having contemporary artists read works informed by the Beat movement, and much of it will be accompanied by jazz from the Jar-E Jazz Quartet. But don’t bother with the beret or turtleneck; this is a come-as-you-are event.
“We try to work in the spirit of the college, which was in the outsider movement,” Davis says. Instead of striving for an academic ideal, BMC was, according to the historian, “all about helping people discover themselves.”
So, the likes of poets Ted Pope and newcomer Jaye Bartell will perform, while others such as Michael Revere (Ken Kesey’s neighbor in the ’60s) and Lori Horvitz (UNCA professor and student of Allen Ginsberg) will put in appearances.
So, are these artists then the “grandbaby Beats”? “Yeah, in a way,” Crowe allows. “There are a number of people here in WNC who get their juice from the Beat movement.”
And under the colorful, geometric paintings of Grandaddy Krikorian, some of those people will return the favor.
A Beat Celebration, focusing on the West Coast Beats, takes place at the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center on Friday, Dec. 10 at 8 p.m. Cover is $3 for students and BMCM+AC members, $5 for the general public.
Leo Krikorian/Implied Space is on exhibit through Saturday, April 30, 2005. For more information, call 350-8484.