Review of Poets on the Peaks, by William Corbett, Boston Phoenix, October 5, 2002
A few guesses as to why the Beats continue to attract so much attention. (1) Their work is so varied and interconnected. If you read Kerouac, you are all but certain to read Burroughs and Ginsberg. (2) There has been no comparable literary movement since. (3) They led wild lives, rich in scandal and vitamin G. (4) Almost everything about those lives is well-documented by the Beats themselves. They aspired to being remembered, they worked at it, and so far they have succeeded.
Of the three books here, only Poets on the Peaks adds to the Beats’ legend. The Felver is of passing interest, but Carmela Ciuraru’s anthology is a work of exploitation that ought to shame Everyman and Knopf.
John Suiter’s book is valuable because it comes at the Beats aslant. It is subtitled " Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen & Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades " — that is, in the mountain range in Washington where they worked as fire lookouts. Philip Whalen, who died in late June, is the least-known of the three, but his live, funny, intelligent, tart, and explosive poetry is one of the glories of Beat writing. If this book introduces you to him and his work, you are a lucky reader. One of Whalen’s great poems is " Sourdough Mountain Lookout, " his account of time spent fire-watching in a lookout once worked by Snyder. Poets on the Peaks also includes a large number of the Beat characters who appear, fictionalized, in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels and who created what was then called the San Francisco Renaissance. Suiter, a Boston-based writer and photographer who began his research in 1995, delivers his literary history in lucid prose that’s grounded in solid research. He is not an academic but an enthusiast who climbed and wandered the mountains he writes about, and this, along with the photographs he both took and assembled, gives his book its character.
Beat writing is rooted in two geographies: urban — Manhattan, Denver, San Francisco — and wilderness — the mountains and rivers of the American West. It is in the West, in the persons of Snyder and Whalen most particularly, that we see the connection between their Buddhist interests (Whalen became a Zen monk) and the American philosophic tradition exemplified by Thoreau. Both men understood with the alacrity of true poets that time spent in the high mountains had a spiritual dimension related to Zen. Kerouac too made much of this connection. Not that they went to the fire lookouts to prove a thesis. They went for the solitude and the adventure, to experience themselves and the world in the absolute terms afforded by a summer on watch in the North Cascades. Suiter’s book is rich with that sense of adventure, and his photographs — as well as those he includes from the National Park Service and other sources — put you there. The views have more grit than what you’d see in an Ansel Adams photograph, and you can easily imagine the splendor and the scariness of such isolation.
Our view of the Beats is clouded by the celebrity of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs. Suiter’s book returns us to a time when the Beat writers were meeting one another, and it reminds us that what turned them on was writing. They discovered one another as kindred spirits from whom they got, in Snyder’s words on what Kerouac meant to him, " a new sense of writing, an eye on prose that was really refreshing. " Whalen adds, " I thought he [Kerouac] was a terrific writer when he was around and what he wrote was exciting and marvelous. And he could be exciting and marvelous some hours. When he was in a mood to be sociable, he could be wonderful, and when he was not, he was a stone drag. But that’s the way folks are, at least literary folks, I guess. " The Beats literary folks? Yes, but not just folks.