By Jonah Raskin
THIRTY years ago, poet-musician David Meltzer published a collection of invigorating interviews with five Beat writers: William Everson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth, and Lew Welch. (Welch coincidentally and mysteriously disappeared just as San Francisco Poets showed up in Bay Area bookstores.)
Now, in his new book, San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets (City Lights; $19.95), Meltzer has republished his original material, plus 10 new free-flowing interviews from the 1990s.
This time around he has seen fit to include two women--Brooklyn-born poet Diane di Prima and Vallejo-born poet Joanne Kyger. And he has also been wise enough to include Philip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen, all of whom read at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955, when Allen Ginsberg first performed Howl. Jack Hirschman and Jack Micheline round out the circle.
Meltzger's interviews will probably make more sense to Beat aficionados than to readers encountering these wild poets for the first time. There's just not enough biographical information about them, and not nearly enough historical background, either, to meet the needs of the uninitiated.
Moreover, newcomers might be puzzled by the curious verbal antics of the Beats. "I have no idea about the Beat movement," di Prima says. City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti insists, "I make up a lot of things. . . . I really don't see the reason for giving a straight answer."
Then, too, in one breath Meltzger will argue that the Beats ought to be allowed to die a quiet death, and in the next breath he'll insist that the world today is dying for lack of the Beat message. Could it be he hasn't resolved his feelings about the authors he's been publishing for decades?
Poetry is a recurring theme, and so, too, is the decline and fall of nearly everything on earth. "This is the autumn of civilization," Ferlinghetti says. Kenneth Rexroth, the godfather--or gadfly as some call him--of the Beats, proclaims, "Civilization is in a state of total collapse." Michael McClure insists, "We were much more intelligent 30,000 years ago."
Perhaps so. Still, there are intelligent comments in this volume, especially from William Everson, the Sacramento-born poet, printer, and Catholic priest--and one of the most underrated of all the writers associated with the Beats. Everson emerges from behind his own ego--a feat that eludes other figures in this book--to provide insightful comments about the Beat Generation.
"In San Francisco we were ready for it long before the rest of the country, but we couldn't have pulled it off alone," he explains. "It took something outside ourselves, something from the East Coast to make a true conjunction of the opposites. Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac provided the ingredients."
Kerouac isn't in this book, but he died in 1969, just as Meltzer was beginning to interview the Beat writers, so his absence is understandable though unfortunate. But Ginsberg's absence is galling, since he wrote Howl in San Francisco and Berkeley in 1955 and 1956, and then for the rest of his life--he died in 1997--never cut his umbilical cord to the dissident Bay Area culture that gave birth to his best work. Just why he doesn't appear here, Meltzer doesn't say.
There's a lot of Beat bravado in these pages, but now and then a comment cuts to the very bone. "Poetry will come from the most vulnerable, wounded sections of society and one's own life," Jack Hirschman says. "It doesn't come from anything institutionalized."
Surely all the poets here--men, women, East Coasters, West Coasters, Catholics, Jews, and Buddhists--would rally around that resounding expression of the Beat credo of compassion and defiance.
BOOK NOTES: Attention, local writers! Hoping to get your writing published? Take heart! Writers of short fiction, short creative nonfiction, and poetry have a shot at seeing their work in print in The Dickens, a literary magazine published by Copperfield's Books, the local bookstore chain that's about to celebrate its 20th birthday. Better hurry, though: the deadline for submission is June 30. For complete rules, see www.copperfields.net.
Jonah Raskin is the author of 'More Poems, Better Poems ' from Running Wolf Press.
From the June 21-27, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.