It was good to see the City Lights and the Beat Museum in San Francisco.
The energy and attitude of Beat is alive and doing well! It changes the world!
The Best Minds of my Generation
I watched the best minds of my generation struggling to discover the truth,
Striving to establish equality,
Learning to respect the universe in which we find ourselves
And dreaming of discovering a better, more meaningful, way to live.
I watched the best minds of my generation applying their whole being
Into filling their lives with wonder,
Celebrating the beauty of existence
And expressing their lust for sensation.
I saw them laugh, rant and argue,
Rabid with passion,
With bulging eyes and wild gesticulations,
Desperate to communicate the ideas in their heads
Before they dissipated into the ether,
Until their tongues were too exhausted to sing,
Their limbs too exhausted to dance,
Their organs too exhausted to love,
And their minds too numb to thin.
So that they finally subsided
Into contemplative ecstasy
And slept wherever they found themselves.
I was fortunate to find myself among a group of artistic people who were eager to expand their horizons and were never content to lead a mundane life. They were explorers of inner space, travellers and creators. They were as eager as me to delve into the possibilities and mysteries that surrounded them.
They were not prepared to accept the ordinary and always strived to unearth the extraordinary.
I was very fortunate.
You may have noticed more than a passing nod to the great Allen Ginsberg!
Early years in teaching and William Burroughs and censorship
When I went into teaching I was determined to approach it in a different manner to the experience that I had imposed upon me in schools. A lot of my teachers were tyrants and I hated them. I refused to have the distant hierarchy of teacher and pupil. I insisted the students called me by my first name. For me teaching was a privilege. I was not there to force-feed reluctant kids with turgid facts; I was there to enlighten and expand minds, to promote thinking, questioning and discovery and turn on kids to the awe and wonder of the universe.
It did not quite work that way.
The world was not ready for me. The teaching staff thought I was a rebellious nutter and the kids thought I was being weak and played up.
Over my first year or two I had to adjust to find the balance. It was a lesson in life. People liked order and to be told what to do. The kids preferred a strict vicious teacher to a weak one. They felt safer. They knew where they were. That’s why we elect psychopaths and sociopaths; they are strong, clear and black and white. You know where you stand with fascism.
I found a middle way.
At lunch-time I shunned the staff table and sat with the kids. I ran clubs, played sport and got to know them.
I believed teaching was not about power but more about relationship. That learning was not about knowledge so much as the skills and qualities necessary to experience life. I still do.
The students found me interesting and we developed good relationships. They asked me to contribute to a student magazine. I wrote a piece for them. The Senior Team thought it was not appropriate and banned it. The students published the magazine with a space where my story should have been with ‘CENSORED’ written over the pages.
One of the brightest of the young rebels, a certain Stephen Ellis, won a prize for speech day. That meant that he received a sum of money towards a book of his choice. He came along to me and asked my advice as to what book might be a good one to purchase.
Without too much thought I said that probably something by Kerouac, Ginsberg or Burroughs might be good. He bought a William Burroughs.
The day before Speech day, when the prizes were to be distributed, the lads took their books in. The Religious Education teacher went apoplectic when he saw the William Burroughs book. He took it home to check.
The next day he brought it back. He had painstakingly cut out all the offensive bits. Now anyone who is familiar with Burroughs will know that he is renowned for his straight talking offensiveness. The book was a colander of holes. There were as many holes as words.
I thought all those cut out bits were right up William Burroughs street. He was famous for using the cut-up technique. That would have been something – to make a new book out of a rearranging of all the offensive bits!
Stephen was marched off to the Headteacher to explain why he had chosen such an extreme book. I thought my short career might be on the line. Stephen did not mention me. He feigned innocence. He seemed delighted at what had happened. All this fuss was exciting. It was all a big game.
I think he went on to become a solicitor. I hope he still has that book.
The poem that opened up worlds for me.
Allen Ginsberg single-handedly rescued poetry for me. I had it destroyed for me in Primary School. The teacher’s view of poetry was to get us (nine and ten year olds) to learn a poem by rote each week. We had the delights of Tennyson and Wordsworth to memorise. We would have to stand in turn and recite a verse on request. She would point to you and you would have to comply. If you did not know it then you had to miss PE (Physical Exercise), which we all loved, to stay in and learn it. I spent a number of afternoons peering longingly at the rest of the class outside. It instilled hatred. There was no attempt to look at meaning or appreciation. Poetry was merely a task, a pain, a punishment. In Secondary School all I can remember is the class reciting ‘The Jumblies’. Great though it was…
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Following on from Roy Harper, Nick Harper, Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac I thought it would be a good idea to move on to Allen Ginsberg! He was the first poet who ever turned me on to poetry. Howl blew me away when I was in my teens. For the first time I realised that poetry was the heart of revolution and could really speak to me. That was quite a change from the way poetry had been so badly taught in my school. They had made it into a drudge, a memory test with punishment. There was no attempt to understand or appreciate – merely to learn and recite. It had killed it for me. Allen enabled me to reconnect with the joy of poetry and opened many doors into a myriad of delights.
Howl and America remain two of my favourite poems.
An interesting aside.
Jack Kerouac – Catholicism and his mother – a strange guilt-ridden relationship?
Jack Kerouac is a hero of mine. Reading his books back in my formative years had a big impact on me. He invigorated me and altered my view of life. He revealed an alternative.
I was always intrigued with his relationship with his mother and his life as a Roman Catholic. It seemed to me that he was pulled in all directions and lived in two worlds. I always felt that it was this struggle between two opposing ideologies that drove him to drink and led to his early death.
Jack was brought up in a Roman Catholic background and lived with his mother. It was here, at his mother’s house, that he wrote most of his books. I can just picture him there in that homely environment, tap-tapping away on his old type-write while his mother sat…
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When I first read those opening lines of Howl I realised that poetry was alive again and it spoke to me. Howl opened the door. All my terrible education had done was to reduce it to misery. This was vital, alive and wonderful. What with Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac and, a little later, Roy Harper, I suddenly had a new vision, new language and a new perspective on life, society and the maniacs who are running our lives. Poetry was a window into my own head.
When I read On the Road and Dharma Bums when I was seventeen they altered my life. I saw something more worthwhile than the pursuit of money and power, I saw an alternative way of living that was more mad, vital and alive. It was the crazy excitement of Jazz, poetry and Zen – that was seeking kicks and enlightenment – that wanted something more than security and boredom. I knew there had to be more – be more spontaneity – be more excitement – be more meaning. I wanted to live – the colours to be vivid – to find out what life was about – and to have no limits!
At Primary school on Wednesday afternoon we had this woman who would come in to take us for poetry followed by PE.
Her idea of poetry was to set a poem for us to learn rote for the following week. She used to like Tennyson and Wordsworth, I remember.
The lesson would involve her selecting victims. They were called on to stand up in turn and recite the verse from memory. You sat there anxiously waiting to see if you were going to be called on. When you recited your verse you were expected to be word-perfect. If you stumbled you received a glare. If you got too many words wrong or couldn’t remember the verse you were made to stay in while the others went out to do PE.
I loved PE. I spent many an afternoon with a poetry book propped in front of me peering out the window at the rest of the class outside enjoying themselves. Each week there was a panic as I tried to memorise some long Victorian ode. Fortunately I had a good memory and managed to get away with it a lot of the time. It didn’t endear me to the verse though.
My early experience was one of anxiety and frustrated resentment. I grew to hate poetry. There wasn’t any appreciation or love of the subject. Poetry was dead.
That was reinforced in secondary school. Here the poetry wasn’t appreciated for its beauty or content but analysed and pulled to pieces for examinations. It was a process that killed poetry. I grew to regard poetry as being written by dead people and the ultimate in boredom.
Then, when I was fourteen, Dylan appeared on the scene. I didn’t associate the words with poetry – they were lyrics – but they spoke to me. For the first time I was appreciating poetry without even realising.
Then there was Ginsberg – when I was sixteen I read ‘Howl’ and for the first time I realised that poetry could actually speak to somebody like me. It was speaking my language; it was alive; it screamed about the society we lived in with all its boring nonsense and shouted about a new type of quest with meaning – a way of living that made sense – that engaged with the big questions in life. I wanted those blasts of life – the jazz – the clubs – the madness – the wildness – the search for answers – the craziness – the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It stood for everything I was for and starkly spelt it out. That was how I wanted to live. I wanted to live! I wanted truth! I wanted to crawl down those streets at dawn with flaming eyes having lived!
Through Ginsberg I rediscovered poetry and unlocked all the gems of Frost, Owen, Mitchell, Kerouac, Keats, Yeats, Blake and the rest.
They’d opened my eyes and enriched my life. Thanks Bob and Allen.
I encountered Howl when I was seventeen years old – back in the heady days of 1967. Back then I was a rebellious youth full of angst and disillusionment. I did not like the society I was part of. I did not want the career directions being laid out before me. I saw it all as shallow, hypocritical and pointless. I wanted something with more meaning but I did not know what it was. I wanted a life that had some depth and purpose. I rejected the whole stupidity of comfort, status and ‘fitting in’ to a society that I considered unfair, unjust and with the wrong priorities. I was on a quest to find something better.
Back then my life was all about Rock Music, friends and girls. I was into freewheelin’ and living in the moment. I wanted excitement and adventure. I wanted to live life to the full.
Poetry had been ruined for me at school. I had been made to learn and recite reams of Tennyson and Wordsworth. It did not relate to me at all. I could not connect.
I rediscovered poetry through the lyrics of the fabulous music I was listening too. Things like the Beatles – ‘Here There and Everywhere’ or the Kinks – ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else’ and ‘Well Respected Man’ or Dylan – ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, ‘Ramona’, ‘Pawn in the Game’ and ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m only Bleeding’. They spoke to me. I was in to lyrics and words. I was on the cusp. Little did I know that I was shortly to be knocked out by the likes of Captain Beefheart, Country Joe and the Fish and Roy Harper. Rock Music provided my poetry and opened my mind to real social issues, mystical thought and philosophy. It gave me insight into the meaning I was seeking and a different way of living a life full of passion, love, tolerance and fairness.
Then I rediscovered poetry. I had been reading Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, which transported me into a world that made much more sense to me. I wanted a life that was unleashed. On the cover of Kerouac’s ‘Dharma Bums’ was a photo of the mighty Allen Ginsberg. I found a copy of Ginsberg’s City Lights pocket book – ‘Howl’
The first moment I read those opening lines that Ginsberg had written way back in 1954 I was smitten. It spoke directly to me. I could relate to it. I interpreted it into my own life. I was being destroyed by the madness of my greed-ridden, war-mongering, wealth-obsessed society. I wanted out. I saw myself as that angel-headed hipster searching for that mystical connection to the universe. I was burning for it. I would rather be hungry and naked and real, rather that bloated and living in luxury in meaningless greed.
Suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore. There were other people who thought like me. I had discovered poetry.
These were the words that opened my mind:
‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,’