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The Relationship of the Beat Movement to the 19th-Century Romantic Movement

February 27, 2017

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Kenneth Patchen with Anais Nin, Unidentified man and Virginia Admiral, Cafe Reggio, MacDougal St, Greenwich Village, New York City (1940)

Notes Toward a Gone World

The Beats were 20th/21st-Century Romantics. Virtually everything about the Beat Movement—its lifestyles, its revolutionary spirit, its promotion of non-conformity and individualism, its aesthetic theory and poetry (especially) and fiction—would be perfectly compatible to the Romantic Movement.

That said, Romanticism is much more complex, a much broader movement. The Beats are almost exclusively American. Very little influence from European Romantics is evident. Of course, the school poets of British Romanticism prevail. Very little Gothicism from Scott, Radcliffe, etc. matters to the Beats.

But, above all else, both movements embrace subjectivity and reject objectivity. Both celebrate feelings, impressions, emotions in their searches for truth and are suspicious of studied, empirical observation separated from individuality.

Both the Romantics and the Beats see the poet/artist as a creative soul, set apart from others, who seeks to reveal himself/herself to the reader soul to soul.

Exceptions abound to everything I say above and my observations do not take into account the complexity of both movements. However, Romanticism eventually developed into postmodernism with the Beats in the vanguard. The Enlightenment developed into modernism. Twenty years ago or more I would have said that enlightenment>modernism was proving a colossal and evident failure to all while romanticism>postmodernism was predominating in intellectual, aesthetic, spiritual thought. Now I’m no longer sure and I am deeply concerned.

Publicity Interview with Paul Varner for the Historical Dictionary of The Beat Movement

February 24, 2017

Publicity Interview with Paul Varner for the Historical Dictionary of The Beat Movement

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How long ago did you start working on Historical Dictionary of The Beat Movement? How long has it taken you to complete it?
I give myself two years for each of my books, which evidently is standard since both my publishers suggest that time frame. So I finished my last book, on Western fiction, in 2010 and began my book on the Beat Movement immediately. I try to spend the first year in reading and research and the second year in writing. I’ve also recently finished the Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature.

How much work did you do on this book each day or week?
Of course, I had two summers to work full-time on the book, but I also tried to arrange my teaching schedule during the school year so that I had at least two full days a week to research and write.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing this book?
Obviously, there is always the challenge as to what and who to include and exclude in a broad critical survey. But probably the biggest challenge was whether I would limit the scope of the Beat Movement to the early generation of the Beats—the writers who came to prominence in the 1950s—or would I expand to writers and works that came after the 1950s. Most surveys of the Beats confine themselves to the 1950s, to the Beat Generation. I decided to treat the Beats as a Movement that began in the 1950s but which continued into the 1960s and still exerts a powerful influence on postmodern literature right up to the present. After all, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder still publish regularly.

Who do you hope will read this book?
My book is part of a series and is intended to serve as a handbook for scholars and students entering into serious academic study of a particular field of literature. My previous two books in the series of Historical Dictionaries have been on Westerns in Cinema and Westerns in Literature. These books survey the scholarship of their fields in general and establish the current scholarship for individual writers and major works. At all turns I push forward and attempt to establish new ways of looking at the literature. So anyone doing serious work in Beat Studies should consult my book. But also anyone interested in the Beats for whatever reason will find much new in my book.

How will this book be used?

My Historical Dictionary of the Beat Movement is a user-friendly handbook ready to be picked up and dipped into for whatever information readers are searching for. It has two lengthy essays surveying the movement and the trends in scholarship, an exhaustive bibliography of primary and secondary works. Then most of the book contains dictionary or encyclopedia type entries on the writers, their individual works, terminology, historical events, geographical places, and all sorts of other information. Major novels and poems get thorough treatments.

 

Be sure to follow my new blog: The Scene.

Notes Toward a Gone World: The Subversive Nature of Art and Literature

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February 23, 2017

I have started out all my blogs with this post–or manifesto, if you will. Just to establish from the beginning of The Scene, this is what I believe.

Art, literature, is by its nature subversive of its contemporary social and economic order.

  • Art is contemptuous of philistine values.
  • Art is elitist. But the elite are not those of the conservative middle classes since these classes have no use for art—not real art. Members of these classes have conventionally been call philistines. The philistines now rule the United States and Britain.
  • The elite are those who, while yes, technically are of the power, privileged class, can rise above and realize the vacuity of philistine values.
  • All true art subverts philistine values. The great masterpieces of pure beauty, of pure art for art’s sake, subvert by their very existence. The great masterpiece of pure art, of pure literature, screams out “I exist,” “I transcend.” Imagine a great piece of marble such as the Pieta by Michelangelo pictured above. Certainly, the piece promotes an intense devotional response. But in economic terms it serves no purpose beyond beauty. But who cares?  Nothing of that sort matters to philistinism unless it can be commodified.

So, when our friends ask us how to distinguish great literature from among all the books lining the bookshelves down at Barnes & Noble, ask them to pay attention to which books pledge their loyalty to the social and economic orders of the day and which pledge their loyalty to pure art. Which books are primarily commodities for philistine market forces and which aim to subvert commodification? These questions are easily determined and require no particular literary acumen.

Some big questions arising today in our postmodern period about art and literature are: Why does philistinism abhor the word “elite”? Can a work of true art collaborate with philistine values? Or, Who are the philistines? Can those of us who are serious in our own tastes about literature really escape our personal philistinism? (Alas, I wrestle constantly with this and usually fail.) Can philistinism coexist with democratic values?

Questions, questions, questions. I want to keep talking about these big questions in this blog. Join in. Follow The Scene.

Paul Varner

 

What is “The Scene?”

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What is “The Scene?”

I want to work with many scenes. Early scenes like the Surrealists and Dadaist. The Beats, of course, are the dominant scene in U.S. history and are still around. But there were also the East Side Scene, the Immanentist poets, the Language poets, and then you’ve got all the scenes out there right now. But let’s talk about serious poets, not just people who write poetry. Let’s talk about poetry as LIFE and as ART! Let’s Go!

How Do You Differentiate Radical Poetry from Mainstream or Establishment Poetry?

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Jack Kerouac ready for a Reading

How Do You Differentiate Radical Poetry from Mainstream or Establishment Poetry? Who knows? I know the difference when I see it, ok? But I do see a clear distinction between radical, innovative, avant garde, experimental (or whatever label you want to use) poetry and what I usually call genteel poetry. I mean, most of the radical poets of the past are in the big canon taught in schools. I’ve taught courses on the Beat Movements a number of times.

Clearly I have great respect for genteel poetry and, again, have written about genteel poets plenty of times. And I encourage to you follow my Literary Life blog where I separate out the genteel from the radical somewhat. And I reserve the right to read some genteel poets radically.

Generally, the distinction is most often made on the basis of the poetic tradition itself. In American literature we usually distinguish the formal tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and his successors with that of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and their successors. Obviously lines are blurred all the time and even the common dichotomy of the two traditions is often disputed.

But I am going to maintain a bold claim for poetry right now in our own time. Modern and contemporary fiction has virtually caved in to becoming capitalist cheerleaders. Even our best contemporary novelists just as our best filmmakers see their work as market driven. The true literary art forms today are almost exclusively poets and poetry and some non-market driven plays and playwrights.

More early considerations to follow.

So follow The Scene and let’s get going.

Paul Varner

Early Considerations for The Scene

Are You Developing a How to Write Poetry blog?

No no no! I just read the stuff. I don’t write it. So I can’t tell you how to write it. Well, maybe one bit of advice. Don’t rhyme.

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How Do You Differentiate Radical Poetry from Mainstream or Establishment Poetry?

Who knows? I know the difference when I see it, ok? But I do see a clear distinction between radical, innovative, avant garde, experimental (or whatever label you want to use) poetry and what I usually call genteel poetry. I mean, most of the radical poets of the past are in the big canon taught in schools. I’ve taught courses on the Beat Movements a number of times.

Clearly I have great respect for genteel poetry and, again, have written about genteel poets plenty of times. And I encourage you to follow my Literary Life blog where I separate out the genteel from the radical somewhat. And I reserve the right to read some genteel poets radically.

Generally, the distinction is  made on the basis of the poetic tradition itself. In American literature we usually distinguish the formal tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and his successors with that of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and their successors. Obviously lines are blurred all the time and even the common dichotomy of the two traditions is often disputed.

But I am going to maintain a bold claim for poetry right now in our own time. Modern and contemporary fiction has virtually caved in to becoming capitalist cheerleaders. Even our best contemporary novelists just as our best filmmakers see their work as market driven. The true literary art forms today are almost exclusively poets and poetry and some non-market driven plays and playwrights.

What is “The Scene?”

I want to work with many scenes. Early scenes like the Surrealists and Dadaist. The Beats, of course, are the dominant scene in U.S. history and are still around. But there were also the East Side Scene, the Immanentist poets, the Language poets, and then you’ve got all the scenes out there right now. But let’s talk about serious poets, not just people who write poetry. Let’s talk about poetry as LIFE and as ART! Let’s Go!

So follow The Scene and let’s get going.

Paul Varner

Early Considerations for The Scene

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What Kinds of Short Posts will You Have Besides Your Longer Major Posts and Commentary?

Re-Posts: I plan on posting lots and lots of material you need to know about from other places, especially current material. I may have to cut and paste and re-format because WordPress won’t allow bloggers to re-post directly from outside the WordPress network. But of course I will always be mindful of copyright restrictions.

And as much as I keep saying poetry and poetics, we all know that the world of radical art is much more. So I imagine some serious independent filmmakers and really radical fiction writers are fair game. Back with the Beats, I can’t imagine talking about the poets and not acknowledging fellow travellers like Burroughs and Kerouac.

I plan on posting acknowledgements on special dates such as birthdays, death dates, historical events, etc. If you read my other blogs you’ll see similar posts.

And profiles of radical poets.

Or short posts with readings radicalizing the official literary canon from familiar college courses. Hey, haven’t you ever thought about how really radical those Greek playwrights were? Or Homer? Or those Russians like Dostoyevsky. We’ve got radical poets? How about radical readers? You!

More early considerations to follow.

So follow The Scene and let’s get going.

Paul Varner