Jonathan Penton


a review of Beat Thing by David Meltzer

Beat Thing
by David Meltzer
La Alameda Press
9636 Guadalupe Trail NW, Albuquerque, NM 87114
156 ppg., paper, $18

I can just make out ‘beatnik,’ jammed in the back
of what I still call the ‘ice box,’ its delinquent expiration sticker
out of sight behind the Jell-O salad and the moldy fondue
--Wendy Taylor Carlisle

Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight is fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
--Leonard Cohen

Now nothing remains for building or burning
The losing of lovers was all I was learning
A time to escape and a time for returning had come to me
--Phil Ochs

You were born too soon
I was born too late
But every time I look at that ugly lake
It reminds me of you
--Violent Femmes

beat’s moot, a tomb
beats mood, doom
even a beat snood
holds jello brains together

beat’s through, a trough
zookeeper’s snorkle into

beat’s elapsed, collapsed
its time’s run out the exit door
into backward streets of kitsch
& socialist realist hero statues
& retroactive sales of books & other stuff

beat’s dead, ‘nuff said
it’s rotting in the tool shed with Dada
                              --David Meltzer, in Beat Thing

In the year 2004, we view the Beat Movement through the lens of history. It’s changed somewhat. A word that initially referred to a small school of poets that merged poetry and prose (and like most schools, this one started as a miniscule clique) grew to refer to the entire pre-hippie counterculture, not only a broad group of artistic movements but a Generation, a vast collection of theories, rebellions, lifestyles, and ideas that all presented the speaker’s opinion that I do not have to accept your ideas as my own; I do not have to live like you, act like you, be like you, think like you, want the same things you want or hold the same ideals you hold. The Beat Movement, as defined today, has little to do with rhythm, but has become a generic anthem for freedom. Other than historians of the 20th Century and actual poets, people my age generally consider On the Road a historical document, one that remains unread with The Communist Manifesto and other failed political experiments.

The freedom offered by both the literal and modern definitions of “Beat" was uniquely American. Beats were raised on American idealism and cursed with the intelligence to see that Americans didn’t give a fetid coyote shit about their much-discussed ideals. Kerouac most famously discussed the inherent value of our land and diverse peoples, but it was always a part of the Beat Movement; a discussion of Beat is impossible without an understanding of Jazz, and the cover image of Beat Thing is an appropriate photograph of Meltzer reading in front of a somewhat irate-looking jazz band in ’58. Calls for artistic and social freedom happen everywhere, but the specific flavor of the Beat Movement had to happen in the minds of people who kept the Atlantic on the right side of their brains and the Pacific on the left. Beat geared up as McCarthy did, spent its days taking pot shots at J. Edgar’s fat ass, and diffused under Reaganomics as counterculture and free love became amusing, but highly marketable, aspects of our idealistic past. Stick that copy of Junky in between the Manson t-shirt and the jolly nigger bank; it’s all Americana now. And after November 2004, now that the final nail is driven into the coffin of American ideals of freedom, now that we begin the final leg of our slow and inexorable march into Fascism, the Beat Movement is history, man, gone the way of digging it and groovy times, gone the way of the commies, the hippies, the anarchists, the objectivists, the individuals. A library of hilarious anecdotes and trivial criticisms, written increasingly by people like me who were not yet an itch in daddy’s pants, bury the Beat Movement in a flood of words as murderous as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. beat’s dead, ‘nuff said.

Except, of course, for the inconvenient fact that David Meltzer and many other Beats are still alive.

Since my intention was to review Beat Thing (insofar as you can call this mess a review), I was careful not to read anything about it beforehand, and was rather surprised by what I actually got. Those who are seeking to increase their growing knowledge of chucklesome Beat trivia will find little in Beat Thing. This book is not written to be a help to Beat historians, except that Beat historians generally get off on Beat poetry, and this book is one wall-to-wall, enormous, hyper-epic Beat poem. Meltzer’s feel for the beat behind Beat has always been unique, and Beat Thing is raw and refined and quintessential Meltzer. You can easily hear his voice narrate the entire book for you; and if you’ve never heard a Meltzer recording and are too lame to buy one, shit, just make a voice up, the Meltzer in your head has an amazing ability to read a zillion-word poem without a break. The cadence, throughout the work, is clear and powerful, as easy to hear when he dips into prose as when he uses tiny, tortured staccato lines. In sharp defiance of Beat kitsch, this is very visceral, pelvic writing, born of the guttural strands of Jazz music that are descended from when Africans used to use repetitive noises in their Satanic rites. Or something like that; you’ll have to forgive me, Americans aren’t big on world history.

The point is that Beat Thing is poetry, Beat poetry, a brilliantly-executed epic example of an art form that looks suspiciously dead. The death of an art form, however, is never absolute, always tongue-in-cheek, and certainly doesn’t mean that the art form can’t inflict ecstasy and injury.

The book begins with a chapter called The Beat Thing Looms Up, 44 pages of orderly images chaotically arranged, defying chronology and moving only to the interior logic of memory. At first glance, the casual reader who is unfamiliar with the details of the Beat Movement might find this section confusing. This chapter is filled with names of people you don’t know, in places you’ve never heard of, sashaying and vomiting and gossiping and fucking all over the page, generally doing things that probably didn’t make a whole lot of sense at the time, and their motives certainly aren’t explained. They are captured in image, fleeting or extended, and if you think you’re reading the book to learn about them, you’ll get nowhere. Meltzer never tells you the history behind these names, and the less you know about their history, the more you can enjoy the work. From page 21:

Start a new world a new day buy a two-bit bag of biscotti at Green Street Italian bakery, then get free coffee from poet counterman Bob Stock at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop:
Chris Maclaine in sporty tweed cap speeds into audio range w/ hipster murmurs to the Bellsons already there; the Vignes (Dion & Lorelei) frazzle in their sizzle against the wall, something’s going down; Mike Nathan, Bobby Fischer of painting, ambles in, twichy laugh, hair scythe cleaves face; Hube the Cube’s reads the morning Chronicle in yet another new orbit of comic chemic roulette, cigarettesmoke turns his beard into redwood; hungover Tom Albright croaks significance to Irene Taverner, Bird’s U.K. penpal; Paddy O’Sullivan gums croissant, silk cape frayed, tricorner hat smashed, its plume bent; Patricia Marx blue eyes you don’t lie to, she said “I want to kiss you to see how it feels," an experiment, eros empirically shopping…

The idea is not to know what’s going on; the idea is to let Meltzer take you for a ride, through a time and place that never made sense and need not now. He writes with constant irony, with the knowledge that he is reducing to words moments that were too big to live in books in the first place. The text is peppered with some of the creepiest photos of Beat icons I’ve ever seen, and many Beat icons took pretty creepy pictures to begin with. Under a terrifying photo of Allen Ginsberg and Wallace Berman, Meltzer ends the chapter with his final word on the impossibility of writing a proper history of the Beat Movement:

who’s beat now & then
who keeps score
who’re the gatekeeper guys & gals who bar office doors
you need a password a look a book an agent &
good connections

From page 66:

“Knowledge & its possession as National Socialism
does not divide classes but binds & unites people
in the one great will of the State…our Fuhrer
Adolf Hitler… let’s give a threefold ‘Heil!’”
“You took the part that once was my heart”
Lady Day sings & kids watch slow pan
along pyramids of bones teeth shoes eyeglasses
instant banish vanish of Hiroshima Nagasaki…


The second chapter of Beat Thing is called Beat Thing: Commentary. Both the words “Beat” and “Commentary” seem pretty metaphorical in this instance. If the photos in the first section were unsettling, these photos are deliberately horrifying; a Statue-of-Liberty-decorated thermometer shot in negative; a skull-and-planet-decorated thermometer, also in negative, and a full-page shot of a newsstand of headlines like MAN BUYS PROSTITUTE FOR $1500 AND KILLS HER, SEX COOK FORCES GIRL TO CARVE HERSELF!, SHE GOT HER KICKS WITH KIDS: CONFESSIONS OF A SEX-MAD BABYSITTER, and let’s not forget LESBIAN LOVERS NABBED FOR ARMED ROBBERY. Welcome to Meltzer’s early childhood; not the life of the Beats, but the madness from which they, and all of their heirs, sprung. Across the Atlantic, Europeans of every politic, gender, and race explained why the specific and personal destruction of Jewboy David Meltzer was the only hope for the Earth’s salvation, while in Meltzer’s own neighborhood people of all ages sought refuge from their problems in the most fantastic and violent discussions of human sexuality imaginable. While Americans increasingly focused their fear and neuroses on those whom they might fuck, Europeans railed against the Other, the Outsider, the Unfuckable. The situation was unsustainable. Meltzer grew up in a world utterly doomed; destined to fall within his lifetime. Furthermore, he grew up with the constant knowledge that his world’s immanent destruction would be blamed on him. Meltzer makes frequent, flashing references to comic books, which must have had enormous appeal. No one should be surprised that Superman and most of the early comic books were created by Jews; Superman, despite his winking-Nietzsche name, was obviously Jewish. Who else but a young Jewish male was born with enough power to destroy the world?

The second chapter is by far the most entertaining, with its discordant and perfectly fused images of the 20th Century. The newsstand snapshot was taken in the 50’s, but it’s not there to be chronologically consistent, it’s there to give a feel of the ideas and moods already in place as the war commenced, and the mood is clear and disturbingly beautiful. Meltzer never explains what he consciously understood about the world as it was when he was growing up. Really, he never explains jack shit about anything, though he makes everything perfectly clear. Here in 2004, he certainly understands what forces turned him into a counterculture artist, the hopelessness that made him turn his back on the American Dream while at the same time fixing him as a personage of the pseudo-Republic. From page 81:

“Hitler decides: demonstrations
should be allowed to continue
withdraw the Police
once Jews get the feel of
popular anger, it is only right”
buckled nylon rayon undergarments
canyon cleavage
Exotique: Bizarre & Unusual
“Perry delightfully reached for the
lovely silk stockings & slipped his trim
ankles into their soft goodness
…It’s never too tight
I’m just so excited
that’s why I gasp so much
excruciatingly secured laces
reach the pit of his tummy
force him to arch his shoulders
throw out his chest & fairly gasp for breath”
--Fat girl! fat girl! cries Leon Parker
bari chug to Navarro nova
Scope, Pix, See, Glance, Peep Show
Wink, Eyeful, Flirt, Bare, Stare, Rave
Night & Day, Keyhole, Paris Life

autopsy to see w/ one’s own eyes
observe watch imagine spy
“I want to get back to the hotel
& see a blood-red glare in the sky
Synagogues burn…

No essay can explain what happened during the War; why the world chose to abandon reason, compassion, and humanity with such naughty and genocidal joy. Poetry comes closer, though current events come even closer. Meltzer chooses to paint a picture, distinctly Guernica-esque, but told before the massacres. The actual War isn’t really discussed in Beat Thing. The second chapter simply keeps beating that quiet, pant-shitting drum: it’s coming. it’s coming. it’s coming.

This is too big for anger, it’s too big for blame
We stumble through history so humanly lame
So I bow down my head, say a prayer for us all
That we don’t fear the Spirit when It comes to call
                              --Bruce Cockburn

The last half of the book is a chapter called Primo Po-Mo, meaning Postmodernism, and making that odd term seem perfectly appropriate. Here’s where the commentary happens, where Meltzer explains that Postmodernism is the natural art movement for a dead world. The chapter opens:

1945 marks Modernity’s death & the birth of the Postmodern – despite whatever theorists, critics, academics, clerks, klutzes, kleagles, grad students, rad relics, cocktail intelligentsia, faux aboriginals, white midclass mall rats, hip-hoppers, flip-floppers, say or signify. 1945 closes Modernism’s file; melts fabric glue of liberal humanism’s Enlightenment’s utopic élan & generosity; splatter into Nowheresville all society sustaining (& framing) institutions & discourses. 1945 is the fissure (not Body by Fisher nor Eddie Fisher, Oh Mein Papa" or chess’ Glenn Gould bobby Fisher) or Modernity’s all-embracing moral desires; 1945 is the frisson of modernism’s failure whose seized & frozen unifying discourses of Popular Front, populism, nativism, religion, optimism, were, in an instant, erased in nuclear heat competing with the sun & Fordist Shoah. Ideas that once embraced & comforted became unthinkable before melted shadow-glyphs of evaporated body stains on Hiroshima and Nagasaki sidewalks. Discourses & narratives that had reinforced a throng’s need for distinction & separateness were literally atomized. Postwar painters abandon the human subject, erase & deface all modernist art icons, turn the canvas into an energy field of pigment molecules, mirroring the microscopic gaze, in a sense capitulate to reign of science & technology & anticipating the robotic postmodern & computer-generated imagos.

I have a friend who, in his younger years, never read any fiction but science fiction, because he felt that the purpose of fiction was to hypothesize about what humanity should do next. And he never read any science fiction written before 1945, because how the fuck would they know what to do next?

Theodor Ardorno said that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." If that is true, what is poetry after Hiroshima? What is the usefulness of our beautiful words, our noble efforts, since the day we turned a city to glass? What are we writing for? Posterity? Man, what makes you think there will be future generations to read? I got news for you, if the world is destroyed by an avalanche of nukes, the books will not survive. No extraterrestrials will get to read them.

What purpose does the history of the 20th Century, the history of Modernism and Art, the politics of the 30’s serve now? What good are our Holocaust Museums, what another friend calls Shoah shrines? Would someone please tell me the point of middle-class JAPs of both genders screaming “NEVER AGAIN," blissfully ignoring the fact that with the world’s current technology and wealth, genocide happens every fucking day? “Never again?" Easy to achieve. Explode 100 megatons, less than one percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal, and you’ll kill all the humans, birds, mammals, lizards, fish, and trees.1 This isn’t a war we’re talking about, this isn’t a breakdown in world relations, this is one madman or one fucked-up computer program, you take your pick. Nuclear winter, ladies and gents. The cockroaches live to eat cardboard, the scorpions live to eat cockroaches, and our species never happens again.

Excuse me, have I digressed? You came here to read a book review of an epic poem? Beat Thing, is it? And instead, you’re treated to the cranky ranting of an undereducated leftist, a low-rent poet whose post-November political philosophy doesn’t equal much more than sore loser? You would like to suggest that I stick to writing literary criticism, and stay out of things I don’t understand? I’m sorry, I’m only taking suggestions from people who kill themselves at Ground Zero2 or chain themselves to Redwoods,3 because as far as I’m concerned, those are the only sane people left.

You wanna know what the Beat Thing is? The Beat Thing is an indictment. Years before a generation of spoiled Spock-children decided they didn’t want to go to war, the Beat Generation realized what America was, what it wasn’t, and what it would inevitably become. In 1945, the Beat Generation gave up not only on the American Dream, but watched as all of the dreams of humanity were destroyed forever. The term “Postmodern" sounds nonsensical when one first hears it, but it’s a perfectly appropriate term for what happened to humanity and culture in 1945. Everything we have ever aspired to was blown away. There are no more art movements. There is no more art. There is gossip, there is sarcasm, there is meanness with a big vocabulary. There is no art because there is no hope. The work of the Beat Generation and the movements that have come since don’t uplift. What’s the purpose of uplifting people who propagate governments and cultures that will inevitably evaporate the entire species? The work of the Beat Movement takes that bomb, shoves it in your face, and says, Look what you allowed to happen. You are dead. I am dead. The human soul is dead and soon the last body will follow. Do you want to understand the Beat Generation? Understand the dead who don’t have enough remains to be cremated. Understand Burroughs’s statement that the soul is the electromagnetic field around a human body that only a nuclear blast can destroy. Understand everything good blown away in an instant, and everything evil still in a process of slow decay, until this incurable species is finally gone. If Beat is dead, it should be; it’s the art form of a dead world.

Beat Thing doesn’t actually get that far. It’s part of an as-yet-unfinished, multi-volume set. Volume One, of which this rant was at one time a review, ends as McCarthyism begins to rise (sort of; as I say, Meltzer doesn’t stick to chronology any more than I do to topic). When I queried, he told me that Volume Two will be called Spirit Gum and “addresses the post-Beat New Age culture of white middle/upper class privilege." The third volume is not yet titled. Presumably, the final product, if the world continues long enough for it to be written, will present, with few specifics and fewer dates, a rhythmic tale of a culture too stupid to realize that it died in the first atomic blast, and the members of Meltzer’s generation that could not help but notice.

Do you like American music?
We like all kinds of music
But I like American music best, baby
                              --Violent Femmes


1Carl Sagan’s essay, “The Nuclear Winter," 1983, November 8th, 2004
3David Chain, environmental protestor, was killed by a falling log on September 18th, 1998. Many allege murder, though the incident is officially considered an accident. The initial San Francisco Examiner article can be found at