Since watching two new films about the Beat Generation, I have a
confession to make: I could never actually finish Kerouac's On the
Road, writes Lucy Jones.
By Lucy Jones
25 Oct 2010
When I was a teenager, I spent hours loafing around my
patchouli-soaked bedroom reading Beat poetry, listening to Jack
Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg's benzedrine-fuelled babbling on CD,
pinning pictures of Neal Cassady to my wall. I felt that these were
my people and cursed my Eighties birth for being too late. My friends
and I bought into the lifestyles of the Beat Generation, their
libertarian values, their coffee and cigarettes, their berets and
black turtlenecks. We dreamed of swapping Chelsea for San Francisco
and felt our tortured middle-class souls were matched by their
world-weary, anti-conformist cynicism. We traded dog-eared editions,
scrawled quotes on to our exercise books and adopted Howl as our
creed. In short, we thought we were extremely cool.
I have a confession to make: I could never actually finish Kerouac's
On the Road. I found it unreadable and shallow, but continued to cite
it as the best book of all time and carry it around in my pocket to
keep up my beatnik image. The reason I can admit to this today is the
release of two new films about the Beat Generation.
I rushed to see Howl, a film about Allen Ginsberg and William S.
Burroughs: A Man Within at the London Film Festival last week. I was
excited to see how their stories would be told for the first time on
film and interested to revisit the texts that I focused on at
university. But as I listened to James Franco (playing Ginsberg) read
Howl and watched footage of Burroughs reading his verse, it slowly
dawned on me that their poetry is not (whisper it) particularly good.
Part of the Howl movie is an animated version of the poem itself.
It's all psychedelic figures, skyscrapers, fires and phalluses. I
couldn't help but cringe. Once the first 12 lines or so were over –
which are admittedly very powerful – I just wanted him to shut up.
Stream-of-consciousness, let's be honest, is a lazy, easy way for a
junkie to write on a hangover without much thought. The clips of
Burroughs reading were equally boring. He's no Tennyson.
The most interesting bits of these films were the Ginsberg obscenity
trial and Burroughs's strange obsession with guns and cats. Yes,
these men deserve their place in popular culture for pushing
boundaries, but we should be glad that Beat poetry as a literary
form, with its impoverished vocabulary and overrated rhythms, didn't
really catch on. Without the drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll, the
emperor of Haight Street has no clothes.