Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Death of the Beat Generation?

I can’t keep writing without mentioning the recent deaths of Philip Lamantia and Robert Creeley. They don’t fit into my exploration of Beat women, per se, though they help to illustrate a key point.

Different versions of Robert Creeley’s obituary call him a “poet identified with the Beats” (Scripps Howard News Service), a “Black Mountain poet” (London Times), and “postmodern” (Washington Post and CBC). You would never have squarely called Robert Creeley a Beat poet because there is no current social movement called Beat. That post-war phenomenon came and went. Robert Creeley passed through the poetic movement called Beat, through the Black Mountain Poets, and came out the other side unscathed. He was a working poet.

Beat women, however, are stuck in a has-been time, forever to be identified and labeled Beat. Now, I would never compare any of these women’s work to Robert Creeley’s. He was a first-rate poet; probably one of our greatest living poets. But even the more obscure Philip Lamantia, who was part of the famous 6 Poets at 6 Gallery reading in 1955 that catapulted the Beats into the public view, is not pinned down in his obituary to that movement. He is referred to as “one of the founding Beat generation poets,” (Miami Herald) and a poet who “associated himself with the West Coast Beat community” (New York Times).

It seems to me that the writers among these women carry a double burden: to correct the historical misconception that Beat encompassed only white men, and to continue writing original work, putting themselves on the literary map. Then again, perhaps it benefits them to have that marketing tag slapped on them. To read more about how "Beat" women perceive themselves today, see Nancy Grace’s interviews in Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers and Ann Charters’ interviews in Beat Down to Your Soul: What Was the Beat Generation?.

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