Beatnik 2.0

by lizard

I was a sophomore in high school when I read The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. Ken Kesey followed, then Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Throw in a little Fear and Loathing, and I felt like I established a nice little literary platform to launch myself from.

The Beats and their hippie progeny cast a long, long shadow over the budding aspirations of this wannabe writer. And they provided the template for rebelling against the norms of my suburban upbringing, which I did in the same cliche ways many young people do; booze, weed, and psychedelics.

At some point I realized I was just recycling the previous generation’s experiences, and as the Clinton years turned to the Bush years, I began to understand how effectively diffused the counter-culture’s impact had become. Baby Boomers were running the country now, and they weren’t doing a very good job of it.

But that’s just the above-ground cultural detritus. Underground veins of poetry still transmit the lifeblood of experience through language, across time.

Tuning in to that undercurrent means finding a space outside of hourly work weeks and yearly election cycles demanding our short-sighted attention. It means expanding thought to include the transmittable elasticity of time that no sentence or song has yet to completely trap.


Originality of thought was recently brought up; more accurately, levied as an accusation. The response is worth repeating:

I don’t know if I’ve ever had a completely original thought in my life. Consciousness and learning are incredibly complicated. Originality is poorly understood and often claimed without being merited. We weren’t raised in Skinner boxes.

Earlier today I was on campus with the kids, and somehow managed to browse the isles long enough to find a collection of essays by Jane Hirshfield, titled Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. I bought the book because in scanning the listed content, I saw an essay entitled “The Question of Originality.” (entire text here)

The whole essay is wonderful, but this jewel is great advice for any writer:

Part of any good artist’s work is to find a right balance between the independence born of willing solitude and the ability to speak for and to others. Nietzsche’s “Three Metamorphoses” offers some insight into how this is done. The philosopher describes three stages through which the spirit must pass before it can truly serve. First it must become a camel, then the camel a lion, and finally the lion a child. The camel, who feeds on acorns and grasses and the hunger for truth, is a being who has agreed to bear the weight of the world, to carry the difficult forward by her own obstinate strength. For a writer, this stage represents the willingness to be instructed by things as they are, to enter into tradition and culture and be affected by the issues and hardships of common human life. Having accomplished this task, Nietzsche writes, the spirit needs to turn lionlike and slay the dragon of external values, whose every scale is a golden plaque reading “Thou Shalt.” Here, a writer steps outside received opinion and enters creative freedom, beginning to find his resources within. It is a stage described also in a saying from Zen: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” But rebellion and independence are still not enough. The lion too must give way, and become a child: only in a child’s forgetting and innocence can a truly new spirit come into the world. This is the beginning of genuinely original creation, the moment in which the writer can turn at last toward the work without preconceptions, without any motive beyond knowing the taste of what is.

Taking it back to the Beat/Hippie pulse I consciously absorbed, I will always remember the conclusion of Wolfe’s “reporting” of the Prankster trip. For me, it’s a perfect stand in for the entire failure of the counter-culture.

“… and every now and then you can hear her blowing smoke rings around a cloud and trying to lace up her shoe .. .”
And Babbs: “… and the message goes out and it breaks out just a little bit but— stops—”
And Kesey: “It’s kind of hard, playing cello on a hypodermic needle and using a petrified bat as a bow …” And Babbs: “Yes, it’s hard working with these materials, without the grins falling off your knees . ..”
And Kesey: “.. . and the soldiers think of the lowly fleas…”
And— “… the latrines wade back up around my knees…”
“So let’s set here in this dilapidated people hutch and think about the things we’ve
done …”
“… Yes… down in Mississippi, that bitch girl we diddled in the cotton fields . . .”
“Still. .. you want to catch the first subway to Heaven …”
“If I can get myself a new set of scales, I’ll get my ass off this third rail.. . and so
saying, he stood up and retched and looked down on the rail on sparks and long and hairy slavers of various flavors of dark intestinal brown …”. “… and his teeth fell out by the dozen and Hitler and his infested cousins began to grow in the cellar like a new hybrid corn and the crows wouldn’t touch him …” “… and up the rail, old True Blue wiped his nose on his uncle’s clothes …”
“I took some pseulobin and one long diddle …”
“… Ten thousand times or more …”
“. .. so much we can’t keep score …”
“… just when you’re beginning to think, ‘I’m going to score’…”
“. . . but there’s more in store .. .”
“… if we can get rid of these trading stamps that get in the way of the merchandise
“… Ten million times or more! …”
“… it was perfect, so what do you do? …”
“. . . perfect! . . .”

To conclude this weekend’s second swipe at exploring poetic (beatific?) inquiry, here is an original poem written a few weeks ago after traveling back to Kansas City.



O how cicadas
fill the sticky air
with song
cracking on the edges
of leaves
and cascading from trees
like thin flakes
of mica
on the still baking pavement

O seething night noises of
Kansas City
heaving heat
like wet bricks of steam

I use to dream
of tornado
ripping my dumb flesh
in a roaring flash
from this sad crust
of earth

(the dolls we are to her
to love
or chuck at the wall
made known to me
in slumber)

the song of the cicada—
my adolescence,
the heat and youthful hope
of years long gone
now dissipating
into knowing sneers—

that music tonight returns
through the stifling air
like the haunted shapes
memories are
memories are


are shapes with fluid lines
language can’t track

like rabbit tracks in falling snow
(right jack?)

but in fact it’s the summer heat
that triggered retreat
into a past I still can’t see—
like how the platform built
launched me
and how
the plan moves fast and slow—
always obscuring its
true measure

(though we may grow talented
following the shifting dance
when the music skips

overall, systemic derangement—
the device burrowing
in, turning around and around and
bedding down—
its software
nosing into the nexus of bone
and blood
as memory sifts through the debris
of this terribly amazing modern flood
of goddamn it love
in unsuspecting crevices

waiting to spring
with the next fluttering of
(actual) wing—

O the sound
of cicadas
takes me back

and for all this forward movement
reminds me
what I still lack…

—William Skink

  1. Steve W

    Ah, you confuse baby boomers with the counter culture. They aren’t the same thing, Lizard.

    it’s like if I were to equate the Punk Rock movement with gen x. Obama, the first Punk Rock President? Hardly.

    Here’s something to think about

  2. JC

    “For me, it’s a perfect stand in for the entire failure of the counter-culture.”

    Are you really saying that there is no lasting effect of the counter-cultural movement in today’s society and culture? If so, I’d have to take exception. The “counter-culture” reaped untold advances in our country from the empowerment of the women’s and civil rights movement, to major environmental protections and technological advancement.

    Even Steve Jobs and Woz and Bill Gates dabbled in psychedelics as they envisioned a world with personal computers readily available to the masses–fortunately, they didn’t come away from their brainstorming sessions with people reporting that they said “WE BLEW IT”. You should read What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry by John Markof.

    And where would music be today without the influence of rock coming out of the 50’s blues and country traditions, evolving rapidly through the 60’s and 70’s into a world wide phenomenon guiding “the boomers” into a country that was vastly different from one they were born to just 20-30 years earlier.

    If I were to point to a “failure” of the counter-culture, it would have been to exact lasting political change. But politics is just a small part of life in ‘merica today, though many want to make it the end-all, be-all dominant force in society.

    • all movements fail when seen through the finite lens of our tiny lives. but the arc of history shows steady movement toward progressiveness and toward enlightenment. each action receives a dampening reaction which hides this from our rapid fleeting individual existence, just as each wave on shore must meet its predecessor’s return.

      resistence to change is always daunting, but eventually the rock is churned to sand. this is why the right is so desperate to cling to every gain they make. because the arc of history defies them and they know it.

    • lizard19

      it’s hard to see the gains during a time where those gains feel like they are getting rolled back.

      and even with the technological advances, arguments can be made that it has not made us a smarter, more compassionate culture. my hand-held device may connect me to a vast network of data, but in other ways it disconnects me from the tangible world through which i move. like the other day, when i ran into a tree branch while looking at my “smart” phone.

      but you’ve heard this generational gripe from me before, nothing new.

      social movements have made important gains, no doubt, and culturally musical innovation, technological innovation, poetic innovation, etc. have, at the very least, entertained, sometimes inspired, so there is plenty to point to in the last half century that has been positive, but it doesn’t seem like it measures up to all the turmoil our capitalist-driven empire has wrought around the globe, and now that exploitation America use to primarily export through disaster capitalism is finally coming home.

      • JC

        Ok, let’s get back to the basic premise i was trying to get at–and this is a generational thing, so I’m not trying to get confrontational, just trying to understand: do you (and maybe others you know) think that the counter culture movement coming out of the beats, and moving to the hippies was a failure?

        If so, how and why, and what could have prevented that failure as you see it?

        • lizard19

          i could be operating under some misconceptions myself, so i appreciate that you haven’t allowed this gripe to offend you personally, because that’s not what i’m trying to do–be offensive—i will try to explain how i’ve come to see it.

          obviously there was intense political activism happening through the 50’s and 60’s, primarily on campuses across the country, which was a real threat to the establishment. post war prosperity and programs like the GI bill gave more people access to different ideas, like evil Marxism and all its bastard children.

          then, for a few years, it seemed like the ruling class really lost control because innovations were evolving too fast for them to keep ahead of. television eroded support for vietnam, while LSD and pot and free love eroded the social norms that made social relationships more manageable and stable.

          television and drugs, though, managed to help steer many of those who wandered away from the herd back inside the gates. doing what feels good, always seeking the pleasures of instant gratification, rendered even those who were trying to drop out of conventional society susceptible to the marketing campaigns of Madison Avenue.

          part of what drives this gripe is the constant repackaging of the counter-culture “revolution” for my generation’s consumption. i get tired of the nostalgia peddling when there’s still so much to do from the failure of all those social movements to follow through on creating a more just, equitable country and world.

        • lizard19

          i’m hoping the millennials will bring something new to the table. Gen X is still trying to reconcile its cynicism and apathy as we turn into parents and professionals waiting to pounce on opportunities as Boomers retire. too bad so many Boomers won’t be able to afford to retire at 65. there will be a lot of crowded households in the coming years.

  3. charles bukowski was born on august 16, 1920 died march 9 1994. there will be a tweetup for the poet tuesday in honor of his birthday.

  4. JC

    I moved this on over liz,

    Oh boy, where to start?

    While your narrative isn’t necessarily off base, I think a few of your conclusions don’t have anything to do with “the movement”, i.e. the repackaging of nostalgia is more a capitalist reaction to an opportunity, than a failure of the counterculture. People in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s weren’t concerned with what us in the 10’s were going to be doing with their artifacts.

    Likewise, asking a “social movement” to follow through is an odd proposition. Movements come and go and either succeed or not. MOvements get caught up in the process, not necessarily the goal, as it is the fleeting intangible nature of the goal (i.e. “equal rights” or “equal opportunity”) that drives a movement.

    Sometimes movements get along in fits and starts (like the “progressive” notion of women’s rights) over many decades, hopefully moving in the right direction. ANd as they say about rights, they are only as strong as the people who fight to protect them–meaning that today’s activists need to be responsible for maintaining and building on the advances of the past. I could as easily say that the Millennials are as responsible for your perceived failure of the counter culture because they are failing to build on, and protect the gains that were made.

    So basically, what I’m trying to say is that cultural change and progress happens across generations and over decades. When I hear you say that the counter culture failed, I think not that what we did back in the 60’s and 70’s was a failure then, but that maybe we have failed to ignite the passion in the Millennials to carry the torch today (or maybe it is the effectiveness of the establishment in hindering the movement). It would be my hope that you and your compatriots could learn from, and build on the successes of the beats and hippies (and punks, if’n you’re into that sort of progression), instead of blame them for the sorry state of affairs today.

    For what it is worth, I know of quite a few pockets of resistance to present day commercialism and faux hippie-dom, and hope that they will grow into the next “counter-cultural revolution” where I am just an old grey hair egging them on (“don’t trust anyone with a 401k!”) . I get amazed when I hear my daughter and her post-teenage friends pay attention to the likes of Nico, Edie Sedgwick, Joni Mitchell, Nancy Sinatra, etc. to get inspiration for both performance art, culture, and real life role models–that’s when I know that the counter culture wasn’t a total failure. And they’re wearing bell bottoms and paisley, too. Wow.

    Oh, and I think that yuppies were the first wave of capitalist opportunists to sell out the counter culture… jes sayin’… if you want to place some blame for the rampant consumerism that is repackaging the past for profit, there you go.

  5. I’m with Lizard on this one. And I have some responsibility for it. Yes, yes, I was as “freak flag” wearing counter-cultist who read Alan Watts and Bertrand Russell (still with a great deal of gratitude towards both.) I used LSD no less than 150 times, practiced Zen, became a vegetarian (which I only quite about 10 years ago.) The drug use, contrary to most of my fellow trippers’ opinion, gave me nothing but a few laughs. There is no real insight. It’s all a silly romantic illusion to some greater wisdom. There was nothing new that can’t be found by speaking to the great minds of history, the Zen masters and, frankly, the common sense of dirt farmer.

    The ideas that were promoted by the Beats et al were noting but a short lived awakening of what had been promoted by early enlightenment and existential philosophers and 19th century progressives like J,S, Mill. But at the end of the day it all faded into long narcissistic journey into immediate gratification and a pathetic stream of individual existential paralysis.

    That’s not to say in any way that the words and emotions of that time aren’t valuable. They are. But if we’re to measure the outcomes in the most basic sense – stupid is as stupid does – I’ll call it a failure. I can only hope that my grandkids can survive the wreckage.

  6. ladybug

    During times of war a few good laughs are worth a lot. Had any lately? I mean the kind that were common among friends actually close enough on a daily basis to share, hand-to-hand, the same beer or joint. Frankly, I find the ubiquitous techno-laugh (LOL) an inferior experience. And, if they don’t stop playing Hendrix in Safeway, everyone will eventually need to take anti-depression pills. Narcissism never rests, but sharing has been capsized by technology and manufactured fear.

  7. Turner

    A few years ago I wrote a short story based on what I could remember of a time when I, then a cab driver in San Francisco in the 60s, drove Allen Ginsberg home late one night from Mike’s Pool Hall.

    I was fairly drug and alcohol addled at the time (and should never have been allowed to drive a cab) so my memory of the event is defective. But the story sort of holds together.

  8. lizard19

    this is quickly turning into my favorite comment thread ever, so thank you all.

    JC, i wanted to marinate on your response for a bit before responding (something i should probably do more often) because i’d like to try and respond to as much of it as possible.

    the first distinction you make—that my beef is with the capitalist reaction and not members of the counter-culture—seems too compartmental. most people then, like most of us now, are participants of this system we call capitalism, and it commodifies every good intention. it’s like the fucking borg.

    then, at the end of your first main chunk, you say this:

    People in the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s weren’t concerned with what us in the 10′s were going to be doing with their artifacts.

    my reply would be that’s not necessarily true, but if it was totally true, then it reenforces this notion i have of a counter-culture that generally evolved into a self-absorbed, if it feels good do it phenomenon until people starting dropping like flies from hard drugs (thanks CIA!) and AIDS ruined “free love”. that’s a gross oversimplification, obviously, but those things did have an effect on the culture.

    Likewise, asking a “social movement” to follow through is an odd proposition. Movements come and go and either succeed or not. MOvements get caught up in the process, not necessarily the goal, as it is the fleeting intangible nature of the goal (i.e. “equal rights” or “equal opportunity”) that drives a movement.

    maybe follow through isn’t the right term. how about saying there needs to be vigilance. for example, fighting institutional racism didn’t stop after Obama’s election. i know i’ll get heat for saying this, but his election was not the absolute culmination of equality.

    it’s a milestone, and quite understandable for those involved in the fight for so long to experience it as a personal culmination of the values they fought for, but it doesn’t negate the persisting realities like the racist war on drugs, and incarceration rates that scream inequality, and unemployment at epidemic beyond depression levels in many black communities.

    those realities are what my generation and the millennials will have to work on, and in some ways you can see your own success in how Obama being the first black president doesn’t cause us to shake our heads in awe because we grew up with the improvements of the civil rights struggle. why not a black president?

    i’m sure there are plenty of pockets of resistance, i don’t doubt that, but we’re still too deeply enmeshed in our national gluttony of consumerism for any broader movement to take root, probably because our entire economy needs consumerism to survive in its current, destructive form.

    that’s another reality we can either start dealing with now, or wait for even bigger slaps in the face until we finally wake the fuck up.

    • JC

      “most people then, like most of us now, are participants of this system we call capitalism”

      I’d venture to say that there were fewer participants in “the system” then than now. Remember the mantra: “Turn on, tune in, drop out”? The “drop out” part was to step outside of the system. Hence the move to communes and alternative lifestyles, and all that sort of experimentation with “communism.” People were really trying to get away from the borg.

      “if it was totally true, then it reenforces this notion i have of a counter-culture that generally evolved into a self-absorbed, if it feels good do it phenomenon”

      Well, there’s no debating the “feel good” component of the counter-culture that was very hedonistic. And yeah, it did have its fallout, which many of us still deal with today…

      But the point I was trying to get at was more the “be here now” lesson of living in the present, which is still very applicable. A modern analogy would be the right’s admonition that we’re leaving a mountain of debt to our children–worrying about the past and future at the expense of doing what’s needed now, which is to get the unemployment rate down so those kids don’t grow up in a culture that doesn’t care about their needs.

      The counter-culture was all about experimentation, and one does not experiment if one is concerned about what people 40 years from now are going to say.

      As to vigilance, of course you are right. That was my slam at yuppies. They played, then decided they were more interested in getting a job and making a bunch of money. There’s no doubt that a lot of negativity about the counter-culture comes from its perceived selfishness–the “me” generation. It was an experiment that on a grand scale went awry. It just wasn’t possible to maintain what had transpired over the long haul.

      But thousands of lessons were learned, and advances made, and our culture today is vastly different today than it would have been if say, the beats, and woodstock, and the summer of love hadn’t happened.

      As to your last three paragraphs, I agree with a lot of it, but I think that it is to nihilist to be useful. I’ve got a lot to say about that, but I think I’ve said enough for now.

      And yeah, nice to have a comment thread that doesn’t devolve into personal attacks and diversions.

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