Practised Spontaneity

The Beat writers repeatedly urged spontaneity and anathematized redrafting, as though the latter were the enemy of the former. Hence, in the mini-essay 'The Origins of Joy in Poetry', Kerouac promotes the virtues of 'writing whatever comes into your head as it comes'. In practice, however, the major works in the Beat canon are almost invariably those which benefited from arduous crafting; conversely, the genuinely impromptu pieces are usually the most disposable. This is not to say that the masterpieces exude laboriousness; but that their air of spontaneity has been hard won. Indeed, one of the reasons that academic critics were slow to applaud Beat artistry is that they did not appreciate just how hard it was to make it look that easy.

Ginsberg's 'Howl' is the poem that is usually thought to epitomize Beat aesthetics. When a facsimile edition was published in 1986 it reprinted five drafts of Part I; eighteen of Part II; five of Part III; and seven of Part IV. Other versions, some now lost, are alluded to in the commentary. The variants that are included chronicle the dramatic revisions the poem underwent before assuming its final form. In Part I, for instance, what is now the seventh strophe was the fiftieth in the first version; similarly, the present twenty-second, twenty-third, twenty-seventh and thirtieth strophes all moved fifty or more places in the sequence, often undergoing extensive rewording in the process. Moreover, the facsimile edition concentrates on the period 1955—6, whereas Ginsberg actually met the poem's dedicatee Carl Solomon in 1949, jotting down at the time many of the latter's anecdotes and aphorisms which subsequently found their way into the poem. In other words, 'Howl' was composed over a seven-year period, some parts of it undergoing at least twenty rehearsals before arrival at a persuasively 'improvised' discourse.

Much the same holds true for On the Road, usually regarded as the definitive Beat novel. The events it fictionalizes took place in 1947. A year later Kerouac had the title and the basic conception of the narrative. By early 1951 he had completed a 125,000-word version of the novel. By May, 1952, he had entirely rewritten it — though at 530 pages it still needed major surgery. By the mid-1950s he was not only compressing the plot, suppressing libellous passages and excising homosexual episodes at the behest of the novel's eventual publisher, Viking Press, he was also allowing his editor Malcolm Cowley to make his own changes without consultation. 'No emendations in time's reconsidering backstep', Kerouac proclaimed; but when On the Road finally appeared in 1957 it was the mature product of ten years' graft by several pairs of hands. The instant celebrity of the novel ensured that Kerouac would never again be under such editorial pressure to revise his work, with the unfortunate consequence that apart from Visions of Cody he never again attained such coherence and authority.

Of all the writers who might be considered Beat, it is arguable that only Charles Bukowski extemporized his best work, pressed up against the instantaneity of his inspiration and without the safety net of extensive revision. Two factors made this possible: first, Bukowski perfected his technique, not by redrafting the same text over a ten-year period like Ginsberg and Kerouac, but by drafting different poems and stories for approximately a quarter of a century before arriving at a style a reputable publisher thought worth preserving; and, second, he gave John Martin of the Black Sparrow Press carte blanche to select what he wanted from the vast, uneven eruption of material that continued right up until Bukowski's death. Martin rejected half the material that his author sent him, finding much of it close to gibberish: Bukowski, for his part, knowing that he only became blocked if he strove too consciously for perfection, was happy to delegate all editorial functions in this way. Although it does not follow the usual pattern, then, Bukowski's career is further testimony to the virtues of tenacity, dedication and ruthless editing, rather than the expected ones of an anything-goes writing style followed by quick success.

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