In one respect, the Beat movement is like the Mayflower--many people, some of whom have a better claim than others--try to trace their antecedents to it. Like those who landed on Plymouth Rock, the original Beats were oddballs and dissidents--a group of Columbia College students that included Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

     Ginsberg and Kerouac met around Christmas 1943 at the Morningside Heights apartment of William Burroughs, a jaded dilettante who lived off an allowance from his St. Louis family and who introduced his proteges to offbeat writers such as Franz Kafka and Count Alfred Korzybski. (Probably the Puritan analogy stops there.)

     After Kerouac and company wore out their welcome at Columbia--Jack quit the football team in a huff, Allen was expelled, then reinstated--they spread out to Times Square and Greenwich Village, picking up new recruits along the way. This growing band included Gregory Corso, an aspiring poet, fresh out of reform school, and Herbert Huncke, a philosophical drug addict. It was Mr. Huncke who coined the term "beat" to signify a world weary approach to post-World War II American life.

Jack's book

     But it was in San Francisco that the Beats flourished, or more accurately, came to the attention of the media who splashed their attacks on the Establishment across the front pages of America. In fact, it was a San Francisco columnist, Herb Caen, who coined the term "beatnik," and forever fixed in the public's mind the image of a guy in beard and sandals determined, at all costs, to avoid the bane of the middle class: work.

     After his delayed graduation from Columbia, and a stint as a merchant seaman, Allen Ginsberg had headed for San Francisco to be near Neal Cassady, a dashing young adventurer whose cross-country joy rides formed the basis for Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Ginsberg was deeply enamored with Cassady who was working for the Southern Pacific Railroad, trying to write, and juggling various wives and girlfriends.

     In San Francisco, Ginsberg found a rich and lively poetry community that had flourished for decades. There was Ruth Witt-Diamant who ran the Poetry Center at San Francisco State and young poets such as Michael McClure and Philip Lamantia. The latter was a surrealist whose work had been praised by Andre Breton and whom both Kerouac and Ginsberg had read while still in New York.

     The dean of the San Francisco poets, however, was Kenneth Rexroth, who had arrived from Chicago in the 1920s with a knapsack on his back and had stayed to dominate the city's intellectual life. An anarcho-pacifist, Rexroth had been a leader of the anti-Stalinist left in the thirties and then a conscientious objector during World War II. He supported himself by writing book reviews--usually acerbic--and working at odd jobs, including a night nurse in a mental hospital.

     Rexroth's poems celebrated his love of the High Sierras where he backpacked often and his romantic dalliances--of which there were many. Occasionally, he combined the two, as in a celebrated poem about making love in a canoe among the water lillies.

Philip Lamantia

     A high school dropout, Rexroth was self-educated and widely read in almost every discipline. One of his pastoral poems, "Toward an Organic Philosophy," was inspired by the writing of Alfred North Whitehead. After World War II, Rexroth held Friday night wine and cheese parties at his home that were attended by poets and artists from around the Bay Area.

     In 1953 Rexroth wrote a tribute to Dylan Thomas who had died in New York. Entitled "Thou Shalt Not Kill," the poem was an indictment of what Rexroth believed America and its commercialism did to poets, including Hart Crane who had dramatically committed suicide by jumping off the back of a ship coming home from Mexico and whom Rexroth had known during his own knockabout days in New York.

     Angry, written in rage, the poem ended with a dramatic crescendo:

" And all the birds of the deep sea rise up
Over the luxury liners and scream,
"You killed him. You killed him.
In your Goddamned Brooks Brothers suits,
You son of a bitch."
(The Collected Shorter Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, New Directions, New York, 1966)

     The poem brought Rexroth some national recognition, and when Ginsberg arrived in the city, he sought out the older poet. Rexroth befriended Ginsberg and praised the lengthy poem--"Howl"--Allen was working on, despite its similarity to "Thou Shalt Not Kill" (including a veiled reference to Hart Crane whose tortured life would have appealed to Ginsberg).

     When Ginsberg read "Howl" at the Six Gallery reading on Fillmore Street in October 1955, Rexroth introduced him and the other young poets who read that night, including Lamantia, McClure, and Robert Duncan. Jack Kerouac had arrived in San Francisco and was in the audience, encouraging his friends and passing around a jug of wine.

     Overnight, "Howl" was a sensation. It was banned from the mails on the grounds of obscenity--and there was a celebrated trial at which Rexroth testified as to the literary merit of the poem. Ginsberg and his publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, prevailed, and the San Francisco Renaissance was born. This movement included the Beats--and their fellow travelers, Robert Duncan, McClure, Lamantia, Lew Welch, and Bob Kaufman, among others.

     The Beat's brief honeymoon with Rexroth, however, was over. He grew to resent the fame showered on "Howl" and its author and was offended by the caricature Kerouac drew of him in The Dharma Bums, Jack's warmed over version of On the Road. In the novel, Rexroth is portrayed as a snide critic named Rheinhold Cacoethes--a name whose onomatopoetic import rankled the poet. Rexroth complained that the Beats were "disloyal" and "ungrateful" and said he felt " if I wandered into a candystore and got beaten up by a bunch of juvenile delinquents." (Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1991)

     By the 1960s, Kerouac and Ginsberg had left San Francisco. Allen moved to the East Village in New York and Jack decamped to Florida to be with his mother from whom he had always drawn inspiration for his writing. Living in near isolation, Kerouac turned increasingly conservative in his political views. Then, Rexroth left San Francisco for Santa Barbara to teach at the university where he became a popular figure on campus with his long hair and headband.


     In 1971 Pete Hamill, the schmaltzy columnist for the New York Post, spent a rainy afternoon in North Beach, the old Beat hangout, and wrote about how Jack and Neal were gone--they both had died a few years before--and the Beats were nowhere to be found.

     In truth, San Francisco remained the home of McClure, Ferlinghetti, Lamantia, Kaufman and others and continued to be a mecca for young poets who longed to emulate the Beats.

     One poet who was drawn to San Francisco was Jack Hirschman who arrived in the city in 1973 and who stayed to become poet laureate.

     Hirschman was born in New York City in 1933 and raised in the Bronx. He graduated from City College, earned a graduate degree in Indiana, then moved west to teach comparative literature at UCLA and become part of the Beat scene in Venice, a beach community that had a sizeable number of poets and artists. During his teaching stint, Hirschman occasionally gave poetry readings with Allen Ginsberg.

     After being fired from UCLA for his protests against the Vietnam War, Hirschman moved to North Beach. He later told interviewer David Meltzer; "The situation in North Beach was mad in the best way. Lots of drinking, lots of loving, lots of poetry." (San Francisco Beat, ed. by David Meltzer, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 2001)

     Although Hirschman disagreed with the Beats' use of drugs--there is more to being a Beat than smoking marijuana, he told Meltzer--Hirschman's poetry is in the raw, Beat style. As he wrote in one poem, describing a meeting with Allen Ginsberg:

"We sat, we talked over crumbs while a roach
Shuttled like a brown monk to and fro
Across the thread unwinding tongues spelt out,
Tottering this way, with whispers of my host..."
("Ikon," collected in Front Lines, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 2002)

     Today, Hirschman continues to write, translate, and hang out at Caffé Trieste in North Beach. He sometimes can be found there distributing copies of The People's Tribune, a Marxist oriented newspaper, published in Chicago; in the best Beat tradition, Jack's books are published by small presses, in limited editions. He recently completed his master work, The Arcanes. This beautifully written and produced 1,000 page complication of poems was published in Italy (in English) by Casa della Poesia. The book is available from The Beat Museum in North Beach, Tel. 1-800-KER-OUAC. ($64.00 plus postage)

     Here, in an exclusive interview conducted at the Caffé Trieste and by telephone from a friend's San Francisco apartment, Jack Hirschman recalls the Beats (and some fellow, fellow travelers).

AL: Of the early Beats, Allen Ginsberg is the one you're most closely identified with.


JH: I was in touch with Allen early on for a bunch of reasons. When I was a professor, I translated a book of Vladimir Mayakovsky, the futurist poet. This was done in collaboration with Victor Erlich. I showed the book to Allen. He was very moved and impressed because he identified with Mayakovsky, too. We became friends by letter, then he came to visit. I was in the university at that time which was really part of the corporate world. When I came into the street, I read with Allen two or three times in Los Angeles. Later, we read together in events with poets around here.



References to Ginsberg appear in several of your poems.



In one poem, I evoke the image of W.C. Fields in alluding to Allen. Fields was a wonderful comedian. Kerouac mentions him and the Three Stooges too, in On the Road. Jack loved all their movies. I used an image of W.C. Fields to evoke the power of the coming of Allen: the coming of the fellow in the bright nightgown. That was a reference to Allen.


AL: How did you first encounter Jack Kerouac's work?

JH: I was a student teacher in Indiana and had come into New York for some reason. On the Road had just come out. I read the Gilbert Millstein review in The New York Times. I read the novel. It was a powerful work. I was moved by it. Kerouac opened things up. He was the first one to grab hold of the language of bop and put it into verbal terms. Jack was also very influenced by James Joyce. You see that in Desolation Angels. That's where the two really come together. In a way, Desolation Angels is perhaps his best written work.



By the time Desolation Angeles came out (in 1965), Jack Kerouac had become politically very conservative.



As he got older, Jack's view began to take on the worst aspects of the Americana that he had opened up, a kind of petty bourgeois reactionary view. If you supported the United States in the Vietnam War, as Jack did, you were supporting really a fascist movement on the part of an imperialist empire.



Initially, your early poetry was very influenced by the Beats.



When I got to the streets, I distanced myself from the Beats because of the schmugadoo (marijuana). That is really the connective tissue, if you like, that held the Beats together. Their zeitgeist. When I was fired at UCLA and went into the streets, I became a Marxist-Leninist. I became a communist poet, and the education I was getting made me realize the difference between what I was driving toward and the more anarchist dimension of the second decade of the so-called San Francisco Renaissance.


AL: When the Beats came on the scene in San Francisco, Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) was the leading literary figure.


Rexroth was a magnificent poet. In a real sense, he was the father of all these guys. He was the man who wrote the first major political poem after the Second World War, outside of the communists who were writing poems against McCarthyism published in newspapers. Rexroth's poem, on the death of Dylan Thomas, was one of the great lyrical poems by a North American poet. He was also one of the great translators from Chinese and Japanese. A marvelous figure, of real international importance. People in other countries know that Kenneth Rexroth was the father of the Beats, and, if you ask Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he'll tell you, too.


AL: Kenneth Rexroth publicly turned against the Beats.



Rexroth disliked some of Kerouac's work. Within his own work, he expressed much of the forward motion that was in Jack's writing. But when you get to Kerouac, you are getting to a street hopped up with Benzedrine and schmugadoo. When you get to the Beats, that's what that is. It came out of the petty criminal class during the Second World War. There was a criminal element that became very exciting, like those thirties James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson movies that showed the criminal as hero. That too is where the Beats came from. Allen was an early drug runner for Burroughs. And so this is quite different from someone like Rexroth who was more ideologically attuned and who did not believe in violence. He was a conscientious objector in the Second World War. That's a pretty tough number to follow.



Some of the poets who were associated with the Beats had very diverse backgrounds. Philip Lamantia, who died in 2005, had worked for View, Charles Henri Ford's avant garde art and poetry magazine. This was in New York in the 1940s, after Lamantia had left high school to become a poet.



There is a poem in one of my books about a poet who claimed all kinds of things related to surrealism, but I'd never see this poet at a rally for the workers or outside an encased environment. I didn't name him, but Philip was the poet I had in mind. In the deepest sense I was accurate because toward the end of his life, Philip became involved with all the orthodoxy of religion and was very church going. The root of reaction and fascism lies in such religious orthodoxy.


AL: Do you consider yourself a Beat poet?



The heretical side of the Beat movement was the side I identified with simply because it was my peerage as a poet to provoke. One of the poems I wrote was of the murder of Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake. I wrote a cabalist poem in ten stages as the flames rise. He was a great prophet of the infinite worlds of the pre-Einstein universe. A figure of great intellect and great provocation.


AL: Carolyn Cassady once said that some critics like Allen Temko seemed to dislike Neal because of his right wing political views.



Of the Beats, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were the ones who were really progressive. Even today Lawrence still carries on and tries to provoke. It's quite amazing. How can Marxism not influence us today? How many kids don't have healthcare and the government is making war largely to secure oil routes. If that is not the reason to change the way money is distributed in the society, I don't know what is.



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