S01E13: Beatniks, Poetry and Vagabonding (Dharma Bums Changed My Life)

In this episode we’re going to look at the Beatniks, Beat Generation, poetry, jazz, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and all things beat. 

Mid way through 2018 I was fortunate enough to pick up my now favorite book, Dharma Bums. It introduced me to meditation, poetry, vagabonding and a lifestyle I’m not too far removed from going for. The beatnik generation, as disregarded it is by the creators, is literally the most influential movement I’ve learned about in my life. 

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Beatniks, Poetry and Vagabonding is the Hang Up

For those who don’t know beatniks and the beat generations was, the Beat generation started in response to post WWII with poety, writers, and jazz artists. Their works focused on the self, spiritual discovery and the exploration of the great united states.

Most notably Allen Gingsberg’s poem Howl, William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959) and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road are most well known and started the beat literature scene. The celebration of non-conformity and spontaneous creativity eventually sparked the Beatnik movement in the 60s and hippy generations that followed it.

I know for sure, if i wasn’t born during the publication of On the Road and Dharma bums I would have been a traveling poet or artist during the 60s.

What surprised me after reading Dharma Bums, I felt poetry was actually cool for once. Alhtough I still agree with the statement Poetry sucks. I rarely find enjoyment in reading poetry.

Yet! Spoken poetry I dig. Spoken poetry on top of Jazz now that what I’m talking about.

You know that meme, with the wrestling guy, Vince McMahon, approve, surprised approved, fall out of the chair cumming in unbelief. Imagine that in the same order:

  • Poetry
  • Spoken Poetry
  • Spoken Poetry on top of Jazz

Now unfortunately, this music genre, Poetry on top of Jazz is rare to come by. But my first influence to this style is from one of the most wholesome members of the beat generation, Rod McKuen.

Rod Mckuen and Johnny Cash:

Not only did his music career spand over 5 decades, he introduced me to enjoyable poetry. He has two albums strictly dedicated to poetry:

  • Beatsville
  • Time of Desire
  • In Search Of Eros

Beatsville being my first introduction. I was so interested in the beatnik generation that I was looking for artists that were true beatniks and fortunately saw a post that mentioned this album. When I get back to the USA, I’m crate digging all over my state for this record. I want this vinyl in my collection.

So enough hype, what makes this so interesting? Well to give you an understanding of what we are listening to here. It’s practically jazz or instrumental music in the background following the story of this form of poetry. The poetry is less about rhyming but prose.

Daily life. The kind of poetry I like the most. That’s what Beatsville is all about the small parts of life, the slice of life if you will that usually doesn’t get noticed. I’ve always enjoyed the small parts of life.

The Time of Desire is a collection of the struggles and successes of sexual desire. Some about himself, people he notices or Generals posted in tokyo. I really feel like I’m part of it when Rod talks.

I was listening to this album so much that it flipped a switch in my brain and I started writing prose poetry and actually good poetry. But I didn’t know that right away.

What happened was, I kept going to this cafe for dinner. At least once a week. This cafe probably makes the best pizza in Shenzhen but that’s not why I was going any more. I had fallen in love with a cafe girl.

So one night, I talked my self up to it to ask her for her contact. I hyped myself up, I waited for the right moment and it never came. I was so upset at myself that… I write a poem haha.

2 months went by before I finally got the courage to ask her for her contact. Actually the day of writing this episode I did it. That’s how I know this episode will come out perfect. And I hope I have to edit this episode with more than “i just got her contact”.

But it doesn’t stop there, I write this poem. I decide to record myself saying it out loud. I don’t know why, what came over me but I did it. Then I played it back.

I wsa shocked, amazed and… encouraged with what happened next. I had a voice, I actually have a voice. Not only can I write poetry, I can speak it and I never knew that about myself.

This is actually a precursor to the motivation have the confidence in this podcast. Now i knew I sounded decent on the mic.

Wait there’s more. I couldn’t let this moment pass up because I know creativity it disapears. So I went on top facebook and looked for a poetry even I could go to. Luckily there was one across the border in Hong Kong and so literally the next day after writing and recording, I went to Hong Kong to a poetry event.

I get there and I’m greeted with the nices compliment I could ask for. Someone saw me and asked the organizer “is he part of the poetry event?” and the organizer said “Of course he is, look at him, he looks like a poet.” Less than 24 hours ago, I was nothing. Today I was poet.

Crazy how things change in moments. The meet up was organized that we just did round table poetry and luckily I had a couple to speak out and the response was outstanding. Even if i was the worst poet in the room, it felt great to get positive re-enforcement.

I ended up going to the Hong Kong Peel Street Poetry 13th Annual Anniversary SLAM and opened up for the night oddly enough. I don’t remember the poem but I remember wishing I’d said something of substance.

It’s been two months since I last spoke a poem infront of others. Something I want to change. Regardless, let get back into the world of Beats and poets.

We talked about Rod McKuen, but lets talk about Jack Kerouac. My first introduction to him and his work was Dharma bums. A book about the vagabond traveling mixed with sexual experimentation, poetry and Buddhism, I had never found such thinking or inspiration in my life.

I knew it existed now but coming out of the 1950s it seemed like such a strange almost romantic less hippy life I wish I could experience. And so I went down the beatnik rabbit hole.

Like I said, I started writing poetry but I also picked up meditation. Which I have to say completely changed my life. I had always thought it to be too hippy for me but dealing with depression it’s helped tremendously. So I started going to meditation classes on Fridays. Sitting there for 30 minutes on end focusing on breathing and everyone once in a while smiling on the thought that I was becoming more in tune with myself.

Then I made the mistake of looking up Kerouac on youtube. Later in life after returning home and needing to take care of his mother, he became a miserable alcoholic that was completely different than I imagined. I knew in dharma bums he had his struggle with the bottle but to see him turn into an old bitter man. It made me kind of sad, thus I started looking outside of him for my beatnik fix.

So down goes my journey into Allen Ginsberg. I read Howl, didn’t really dig it too much maybe it’s the work of the times. I was starting to see reading poetry bores me. I rather listen to it. Sadly enough, Ginsberg even said himself that for Jack to be mental stable he needed to get away from his mother. Unfortunately for whatever reason, Jack dies at the young age of 47 due to complications of alcohol abuse.

So Allen Ginsberg isn’t my thing either. I was so yearning for the same wholesome life enlightening experience from Dharma bums in another book. but the frequent use or abuse of drugs and experimentations wasn’t what I wanted. Then I found it, the book that would help me at least move on with the admiration of beatniks.

In 2004 Sam Kashner publishes his memoir titled “When I was Cool” of his time as the first student of the JJack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colo. A university lead by William Burroughs, Allan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and a few other beats. Though at this time, the beats were old, almost past their prime and out of the limelight of sorts.

Sam Kashners experience though was everything I could want or imagine had I had the chance to go to the school in 1974 as Sam did. He wasn’t crazy like Gregory, he wasn’t as flamboyant as Ginsberg and from what I read the complete opposite of Burroughs.

To be honest, Sam was a lot like me. Just idolizing these literary geniuses for a period of time that feels so romantic. He too was a poet and a thinker but throughout the book just like the reader, he mainly goes on for the ride of the experience.

and that experience was perfect and made me realise, the beats were just in the right place at the right time and they had ideas that were once radical. but they are no different than you and I, facing the hardships of life. The only difference is they wrote about it, they experienced it and shared it.

After reading the book, I was happy enough with my beat journey but there was still one book I needed to read. On the Road. It was the last book I read of 2018 and all I can say is Meh. Dharma bums for me was more aligned with what I wanted out of the beat generation.

I came to the conclusion I didn’t like the beatnik generation too much because they took counter-culture as a reason to smoke dope and use LSD.

I liked the beat generation for their exploration of religion, travel and poetry. So I can see how the creators of the moment can detest it for it feels like it was taken in the wrong direct. Then again it might just be, no one knew anything about this stuff when it originally happened. Then a bad spin was put on it and now we have a stigma.

After this 6 months of going down the beat generation rabbit hole, I’ve come to the conclusion that I want to travel east to west, up and down, and all over. I just need to do it and I hope I do.

I’m traveling in India at the moment of this release (Feb 2019) and I hope I find something that awakens in me to give me a clear vision of what my next steps in life are.

I have some ideas on how poetry can sort of come back in this day in age. Just need to do it. I wish poetry was more involved in today’s society, could you imagine having a poem banned in the united states. A poem bring together crowds to hear how they think.

Now we have music that does that… i guess. Youtubers? I don’t know, there’s too many voices these days to really feel a movement or a spark. and even if a moment is started, we shut it down so quickly or mock it. I wonder if the beats would have had their time and place in the 21st century.

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