Karl Young


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

From the title of this book, some readers might expect a nostalgic and adventurous romp through Beat era America with a cast of consecrated heroes, as familiar as the figures in such sit coms as Friends, told by one of the youngest of the originals. That's precisely what they won't find. Those who want more, whatever that 'more' may be, may find the book something they've been waiting for, perhaps without knowing it. Delightfully, what they were waiting for could be any one of a number of things, and David Meltzer is very happy to leave a completely ambivalent and ambiguous scene just that way - and to carry it forward in just those dimensions of uncertainty. Is this a book of social analysis that should have been written in the Beat era or is it an evolution from the era that advances forms and ideas latent in the Beat scene? Should Beat insolence and idealism turn around and make fun of themselves as a means of self preservation? Does it matter if this book comes across as an apologia or as a pentamiento? Could it be less than a combination of the above?

On the macro-formal level, the book divides into two parts, "The Beat Thing Looms Up" and "Commentary." (The second part has two section headings, but unify themselves separately from part one.) In “The Beat Thing Looms Up,” Meltzer evokes the many small "opositional communities expressing & embodying values unified by ideological & spiritual codes around the clock, supporting reinforcing poets & artists in epiphanies, ecstasies as well as tending to the fallen". However, phoniness, posing, and above all commercialism enter the scene at its inception, and this first part of the book consists of a long set of satiric riffs on their failure. Meltzer finds "Disneyland Beatsville urban mall themepark" or "MacDonald's beat meat subs espresso shakes Bongo Burgers Cool Slaw" funny, and has fun poking at their balloons. He has done something similar in the musings on pop culture that he has explored in poems such as "Mr. Peanut" and "The Red Shoes," but here they taken on deeper significance.

Meltzer's procedure in part one is the jazz musicians' practice of taking a melody or set of melodies and playing them forward, backward, upside down, inside out, set in call and response to themes in other "standards" and laid out in sets of possible variations. A Meltzer work which employs this and can be found on-line is "Bark: A Polemic." In a work like "Bark," the practice is simply a good and useful procedure. In Beat Thing, it is part of what Meltzer has to say. Above all, Meltzer sees (and hears) the Beat scene as built on jazz. Although acknowledging his debt to African American musicians and their white fellow travelers is a frequently repeated theme in part two, you can see the keen analyses that go into it employed as well as lauded in part one.

Some sub-sections of part one begin with lines spelling out the examined element: "What about Beat food?" and "Okay, what drugs did Beat Things do?" Part of the humor and cataloguing of people and events in these sections comes from their thoroughness - from the way Meltzer won't let them go until they're exhaustively listed, though not explained. My favorite sub section begins with a semi-rubric: "Start a new world a new day." This section is a compilation of condensed images of personal interchanges with other people - that is, the heart of the milieu. These include a fair number of people I can't identify, which is all to the best, since some of the most interesting people in those "opositional communities" were not necessarily the ones who got the most recognition, and such communities are only possible in situations where peers can exchange ideas, bring out each other's latent capacities, and become more than what they are alone by pooling their experiences and aspirations. As with the more comic sections, this one resembles a box of snapshots - images caught when the bulb flashes - leaving no explanation of what's around them. Each of these snapshots intersects a story. Meltzer could tell the stories in these three pages, making a complete book of them, and that book might be the most interesting on the milieu yet written. Yet Meltzer leaves the reader simply with a sense of transience and speed - things happened, and then were gone.


Part two is built on snapshots and compressed satirical sketches, too, but here Meltzer is facing in a different direction: toward mainstream American culture during the Beat era.

In this section, Meltzer moves from a longer, loping base line more befitting satire and reverie to a tighter, shorter measure. For a number of years, I wondered why Meltzer talked a great deal about haiku, but never seemed to write any. The answer is simple enough: many of his poems are made up of lines that each consist of one short sentence, firmly marked off by a period at the end. You could see many of these poems as accumulations or interlinked constellations of haiku. Each unit is brief, and each line contains an epiphany and a paradox, as does classic haiku. In the present poem, Meltzer does not stick to the one-sentence-per line practice, but he does proceed by a succession of similar units not defined by their lineation. In this poem, the movement of sentences or independent and often autonomous clauses does not coincide with lines, because he's using the line to reproduce something like jazz syncopation - a means of creating a sense that a sequence of notes is not following their expected order in the scale. Meltzer remains the poet of the Beat ambiance most adept at condensation. In this respect, he resembles some of the Objectivists as much as his fellow Beats.

The poem proceeds largely by association - some of it intuitive, some based on chronology or other dating devices, some based in sound. The general direction of part two is toward a description of middle America during the 1950s. Several other themes tie this movement up and cut it off when it tries to move. The one that's optimistic and celebratory follows developments in the arts. African-American music dominates in theme as it does in prosody, though this does not rule out mention of painting and other arts. This celebratory drive, however, constantly gets stopped by colliding with atrocities. The biggest themes are the Holocaust and the development of nuclear bombs. These themes can work out in various details and manifestations, but they keep coming back. Here Meltzer brings in another musical device, the madrigal or round. No matter how much the jazz musician tries to improvise further on a basic melody, these nightmares keep coming back. You can get the sense that either the poem is going around in circles or the reader is dizzy from them.

the Georgian dies & Kenyatta convicted
Heidegger's new book Julius & Ethel fry
"How Much Is That Doggie In The Window"

Here Stalin, great betrayer of revolution, dies as the central African reformer Jomo Kenyatta gets tried in a kangaroo court; a book by a prominent philosopher who supported or at least did not object to German fascism receives publication while two U.S. Jews are electrocuted on phony charges of delivering nuclear "secrets" to the Soviets; and Patti Page's hit tune unconsciously mocks these points which define 1953. The sequence could be read as a syllogism as well as a jazz riff.

Meltzer does nothing to bring this section to a logical or historical conclusion. It remains a sort of Flying Dutchman, forever racing around its own globe. The music has come out and flown. Political events have unfolded in different directions, many of which could not have been predicted in the 1950s. In the poem, the era is suspended in its own circuitous trap, perhaps an object lesson in how to create dead ends. Was the Beat thing one of those dead ends? How much can it - in its little dream worlds in the San Francisco Bay area and Lower Manhattan - be separated from the culture that gave birth to it?


That’s a question Meltzer doesn’t answer, and which means more as a question. But even without an answer it does lead into perhaps the biggest paradox of the Beat thing: No literary movement in the second half of the 20th century had the kind of impact the Beats (and those who posed as them) have had on the literary world. However you look at it, with just one exception, the Beats created the only global following of any literary movement since Classic Modernism. The exception is mail art, which reached considerably farther in active participation, but which has disappeared from virtually any public record because it had no audience, only participants. You can find endless Beat groups, however, in any part of the world you'd care to look. You can find them in Argentina, Switzerland, South Africa, Russia, and the Koreas. Japan has half a dozen separate groups that claim Beat lineage. I wouldn't be surprised if there aren't young Afghans who've read their Kerouac clandestinely. Everywhere, literati not in the direct Beat lineage have nonetheless absorbed Beat ideas. Back home in the U.S., there have been at least three new generations of neo-Beats, and there will probably be more to come.

If I were to try to state the reason for the spread of Beat influenced poetry succinctly, I’d say that it came from a convergence of means of capturing the experiential intensity of living in the moment. In artistic terms, this benefits from techniques of compression and of the unpredictable change in the sequencing of details which I have equated with syncopation in jazz. On another level, living in the moment can lead into mystic traditions from Zen to Kaballah. Unfortunately, without some such guide, living in the moment is what Nazis did at camps like Auschwitz, and what American army kids did in the prisons at Abu Gahrib.

As with the other classic Beats I most admire - Snyder, McClure, Whalen, Berman - Meltzer knows how to do things other than strike poses. If living in the moment was the essence of the Beat thing in San Francisco half a century ago, it depended on its own ecology, its own infrastructure. It couldn’t have happened without the context of "oppositional communities expressing & embodying values unified by ideological & spiritual codes." And those communities, in turn, relied heavily on people eager to learn how to do things - these included such non-arty disciplines as practical forestry, automobile mechanics, even small business management, though establishments such as City Lights hid this well enough. In Meltzer’s case, the guides included traditional erudition. His knowledge of Jazz may seem standard - but his familiarity with music includes everything from Renaissance madrigals to current Country and Western. His familiarity with Kaballah and Buddhism fit the Beat stereotype, but his ability to talk about arcana as eccentric as Elizabethan pamphleteers or as close to academe as the mystery cults of the Greek and Hellenistic milieux moves outside the ranges of predictability. For Meltzer, these studies gave him freedom to improvise in security, which in turn helped him make the moment worth living in. Finding such guides may have been as important to the Beat thing as spontaneity or insolence or any of its more highly touted characteristics.

Where this book will fit in the Beat canon is impossible to say. It may act as a sort of Coda. If so, it may be appropriate that it was written by the baby of the group, now in his later sixties. It certainly doesn’t hurt that for a movement that has at times obsessed on personality, that it should be written by one of the most unabashedly friendly and generous people any literary movement has ever included.


The book itself features beautiful graphics. About half are collages by Wallace Berman, one of the most woefully neglected figures of the period. He designed many covers of David Meltzer books, and his collages can't be shown too much. The photos, by Charles Brittin and C.R. Snyder are choice. The final shot inside the book’s covers, by Snyder, works just right. It shows David Meltzer with his late wife Tina - "in the days," as the caption puts it. David's head is in the dark and just visible by an outline of light which captures profoundly contemplative expression and body language. It may suggest to some readers a negative of the line drawings Meltzer loves to do and which have been printed with the texts of many of his books. Tina is strikingly beautiful, and her expression is thoroughly enigmatic. These are kids deeply living in the moment, and it does seem to be a glowing moment indeed.