At a recent book launch/reading in Yreka, CA for the new release of the Berkeley Poets Cooperative: A History of the Times from Hip Pocket Press, the question about the Beat poets was asked, to which I gave a weak answer. I would like to readdress that question.
The question was, “How did the Berkeley Poets Cooperative relate to City Lights, Ferlinghetti and the Beat poetry movement?”
To which I gave a non-committal response, something like, “We didn’t have anything to do with the Beat movement that was happening in San Francisco. We were in Berkeley.”
It was not only an inadequate response, it was also an inaccurate one.
I have been carrying that question with me ever since, in the hopes of a chance for a more accurate response.
According to the Poetry Foundation, a definition of Beat poetry alludes to its San Francisco roots:
“A national group of poets who emerged from San Francisco’s literary counterculture in the 1950s. Its ranks included Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Gary Snyder. Poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth influenced the development of the “Beat” aesthetic, which rejected academic formalism and the materialism and conformity of the American middle class. Beat poetry is largely free verse, often surrealistic, and influenced by the cadences of jazz, as well by Zen and Native American spirituality…” to which I would add that Beat poetry is a cultural style and an aesthetic of individualism.
The Berkeley Poets Cooperative did not represent any particular style or aesthetic, we embraced all of them. In fact, the BPC was the antithesis of enforcing a style or aesthetic. The BPC argued that it was the work itself that mattered, not the style or the aesthetic. We believed that every poem or artistic endeavor was worth the effort that was required to understand it. It was a kind of art-for-art’s-sake philosophy, with an emphasis on honesty and the integrity of the work itself. The BPC accepted the aesthetic of the Beats, just as we embraced the aesthetics of the Feminist poetry movement, the Language poets and the Concrete poets and the other modern styles that were emerging. The Co-op did have some run-ins with Beat poets that are worth an anecdote or two.
If I remember correctly, we were occasionally visited by Beat poets with names like Peter Pussydog and Jack Micheline. Some Beat poets dressed entirely in leather chaps and boots (expressing their individuality?) and we had one occasion when two Beat poets (who did not care for each other) showed up and broke into an argument with one another over the aesthetic stance of one of their poems. Hot words led to loud words and suddenly one of them leapt to his feet and pulled a knife, while the other jumped to his feet and challenged him to strike. Then the rest of us in the Co-op were on our feet, standing between them and restraining the poets. Finally, we asked them both to leave. It was that kind of a “scene” sometimes, reminiscent of the tumultuous relationship that led to the shooting of Rimbaud by Verlaine in Brussels in 1873. The good news in this BPC story, for me, is the full flowering of the passion of the poets. Perhaps, this time they went too far but, in the 1970s, it seemed like that was not out of the question. The passion was good. The anger was misplaced.
Then, as someone quipped, “What we need now is a change of pace,” we all passed a bottle of wine around and settled into reading a sonnet dedicated to Emily Dickinson.
How did the BPC relate to the Beat movement? The Beats offered an exciting, exuberant perspective, but it was just one of the many aesthetics and styles that flowered and flourished in the Bay Area during those creative decades.