No matter how often one might repeat Howl as if it’s some beat equivalent of Eliot’s The Wasteland, it isn’t, though the two might cadence simpatico when there’s a double bass rhythm and nobody listening i.e. in many a smoke-free coffee house where admission’s free and everyone wears their uniform outside of work. The main similarity lies in both excellent pieces representing Eliot and Ginsberg punching above their weight, inspired and goaded by greater art – Eliot flying high on French inspiration and accidental carousing, drunk on the real thing in company of modernist tramps Jean Genet would fuck in prison twenty years later; Ginsberg on lust for Catholic Jack, mind first, body a close second, the two reversed once he’d had a few brewskis. But connections count and the Anglo Saxon Eliot charmed the English fame makers while Ginsberg was, after all, a Jew. Ironic these archetypes would come to represent what remained of creative hope fifty years later. Life imitates art indeed!
“The essential difference, then, between the fellow Columbia University alumni was something similar.”
Ginsberg was a “beat” poet whose writing was a literature in the vacuum, elevated by combining acrobatic recycling of last night’s debauchery hearing Protean frat-house speeches, motivating the cum-drained morning type tapping aerobics and receding hangover. Ginsberg, gay with grudging but generous mimic-empathy, eager for approval like most who believe themselves one of life’s ugly people, clever enough to strike audience-accessible chords; always lyrical, trying to seduce (eyes on the cutest boy in the room) but sometimes, invariably by chance and the muse’s pity for the try hard, working out flashes of the truly poetic.
Kerouac by contrast was a sincere and tortured poet of singular brilliance, the brightest luminary of this so-called beat generation he came to symbolise in popular culture but transcended by the time he’d gazed on those big Kansas starscapes huddled sardine close with crackers heading West for the corn harvest. On The Road and Desolation Angels are works of genius and there latter possibly the apex of all American literature, though less accessible and universal than On The Road.
Kerouac is an original, a literary genius, driven by passions childlike in their hopeful ardour. He spent his life in an angst-to-alcoholic exploration at breakneck pace, leaving inspiration and bewildered academics scrambling to either catch up or deride dismiss. Catholic Jack neither knew nor cared. He was like Rimbaud a century earlier, life and art by necessity more than by choice – meeting the demands of authentic self-expression applied to the growing quicksilver mind of America’s only literary virtuoso.
Ginsberg died old and lauded. Kerouac took the other road: no middle age behind a beard, bumbling about with mates and macaroni in tow, stoned and adored and pilfering pennies from mid western culture vultures. Instead death, hypothermia or cirrhosis, fallen face down on the railroad tracks by mother’s homely house, alone, liver soaked in sweet wine and a handwritten Rilke note crumpled up in his hand.