Monday, November 13, 2006

The Beats: Beautiful in an Ugly, Graceful Way.

By Jonah Raskin

The Beats have brought me a great deal of joy - and a great deal of sadness, as well. To be more precise, the original Beat writers have brought joy, and the Beat businessmen have brought sadness. I suppose that's what happens with every literary revolution; sooner or later it becomes established - or it vanishes from the scene - and when it becomes established it becomes a matter of money, copyright, control of literary property and control of the literary image as well.
A case in point: Allen Ginsberg did not copyright Howl when it was first published. The idea of copyright did not cross his mind. Soon after CityLights published the first edition, he did copyright it, and made a handsome living from the million or so copies of Howl that City Lights sold, along with Kaddish and his many other volumes of poetry.Today, HarperCollins - part of Rupert Murdock's media empire - owns the copyright to Ginsberg poetry, and anyone who uses more a line or two of quotations has to pay a fee -or risk a law suit and a fine. I applied for and received permission for my book about Allen Ginsberg entitled American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the BeatGeneration. HarperCollins counted up the total number of words from Ginsberg's work and charged me a fee - with words like "and," "but" and "like" costing as much as phrases like "hydrogen jukebox" or "drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality" - which makes no sense at all. To their copyright division it did not matter what words were at issues, or the uniqueness of the phrasing. All that matters to them is the total number of words.
Paying a fee to Ginsberg would have made sense. I understand the notion that an artist will go on being creative if he or she is paid for his orher work. But paying a corporation doesn't make anyone creative.I also had to get permission from Allen Ginsberg's estate, which was more interested in presenting a sanitized image of Ginsberg then in presenting a full and complete picture of him as a poet and as human being. Only the fact that Ginsberg himself insisted "Candor is our business" forced the executors of the estate to give me permission to quote from Ginsberg's work, all of which is in libraries across America, from Berkeley, California to Austin, Texas and New York. Libraries do an excellent job of preserving manuscripts and I have no complaint against them.What I don't like is that the Ginsberg estate did not want to give permission until and unless I showed that I was going to write a book of which they would approve. Of course, I did not promise to write the official story with their official version. I insisted on writing the book that told the full story, and I did resent it that I had to battle the folks at the Ginsberg estate. When I published a story I had learned from the executors themselves about Ginsberg on his death bed, they were irate.
Ginsberg had called the White House and had asked then President William Clinton if he would present him, Allen Ginsberg, with an award. Clinton had no award to give, and Ginsberg died without the recognition he had wanted. To anyone who had known Ginsberg, or who had studied his work, it was obvious that he thrived on fame, and craved fame and adulation. In "Transcription of Organ Music," a poem which he wrote in Berkeley in 1955, at the same time he was writing Howl, he wrote, "I want people to bow asthey see me and say/ he is gifted with poetry."
The Ginsberg exeuctors did not want me to portray Ginsberg as he really was: a man obsessed with fame. They wanted me to describe him as a Buddhist totally detached from self and from ego and from power, and whenI also wrote about the ad that Ginsberg did for the Gap that promotes Khakis they did not approve of that, either, I am sorry to say. And let me say here that Ginsberg made about $300,000 a year in the last decade of his life - a fact that the guardians of the estate would not like to be made public, either.
Writing biographies of famous writers, including the Beats, can be frustrating and it can feel as though the original intention of the Beat Generation writer has been perverted by corporate control and by copyright. My own experience has taught me the importance of not knuckling under and insisting on telling the truth, even when it does not paint a beautiful picture.
Of course, the Beats weren't always beautiful, as Jack Kerouac noted in "About the Beat Generation," his landmark 1957 essay, but rather "beautiful in an ugly graceful new way." Writers about the Beats must capture the ugliness and the gracefulness, and the ugly gracefulness, too, or they will fail to reflect the truth of the Beats.

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