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COLUMN ONE : The Beats Are Cool--and Hot : Once the consummate outsiders, literary rebels of the '50s are finding new life in the mainstream. Academia, TV, movies and Madison Avenue are spotlighting Kerouac, Ginsberg and others.

August 02, 1994|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You chose your words from mouths of babes got lost in the wood.

Cool junk booting madmen, street minded girls in Harlem howling at night.

What a tear-stained shock of the world,

You've gone away without saying goodbye.

--From "Hey Jack Kerouac," performed by the rock group 10,000 Maniacs

Allen Ginsberg wears khakis.

--An advertisement for The Gap

*

Dig it. The beats are back.

The novelists and poets of the Beat Generation, literary rebels who battled the alienation and conformity of the 1950s in their own jazz-inflected voice, are enjoying a revival.

"We're still the only real rebellion," beat poet and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 75, said in a recent interview.

This is not the first time the beats have resurfaced in mainstream culture. But this time, the phenomenon is deeper and wider. Beginning in the late 1980s, beat-era cultural references began popping up and have continued at an increasing pace.

Ironically, the beats--once the consummate outsiders--are being embraced by the same Establishment players that shunned and mocked them: academia, the publishing world and the mass media.

* Scorned for decades by literature professors as semiliterate barbarians, beat writers are being added to college curricula. New York University held a weeklong conference in May heralding the return of the beats and discussing their profound influence on modern art, poetry and prose. Six hundred people attended.

UC Berkeley is interested in obtaining Kerouac's papers; Stanford is dickering for Ginsberg's.

* Long considered too obscene, formless or rebellious for students, beat poetry is being collected into an anthology for high school students, "Beat and Beyond," to be published by Henry Holt. "The beats were interested in protest, outrage and nonconformity and those are eternally the concerns of youth," said anthology editor David Kherdian.

Other publishing houses are rushing to release beat works. All of Kerouac's major novels are back in print. A number of documentary film projects are under way.

* Ginsberg, 68, whose 1955 poem "Howl" provoked a landmark obscenity trial, is drawing standing- room-only audiences this year with readings from his new book, "Cosmopolitan Greetings." In June, he recited a poem from the pitcher's mound at Candlestick Park before a San Francisco Giants game.

Booted out of Czechoslovakia as a subversive in 1965, he was treated as a conquering cultural hero when he toured the nascent democracies of Eastern Europe where beat works, no longer banned, are bestsellers.

* Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola is working on a script for a possible movie of Kerouac's 1957 novel "On The Road," the seminal work of the beat movement. Television, which stereotyped beats as bongo-beating clowns, has rediscovered the energy and youthful anger that underpins beat sensibility. An ambitious series for the upcoming season, "Rebel Highway," set in the 1950s, has an "On The Road" flavor. In one episode of the TV series "Quantum Leap," the hero travels back in time to meet Kerouac.

References to the beats have also popped up in popular songs, advertising (Gilbey's Gin and The Gap) and movies ("Field of Dreams," "Matinee," "Peggy Sue Got Married").

Beat-imitating poets are hot in New York clubs.

There are several theories about why the beats still resonate.

For one thing, writers such as Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs ("Naked Lunch"), Diane DiPrima, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and others remain forceful and compelling, particularly for the young.

"The music, the ideas, the spiritual seeking still have juice, tremendous juice," said Anne Waldman, a poet, confidante of Ginsberg and director of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., a college dedicated to Buddhist teachings.

During a July tribute at Naropa attended by several hundred students, Ginsberg was asked why the beats are winning a new audience.

"Basically," he answered in typically concise beat fashion, "because of the sincerity of the works of art, the passion, the feeling of self-empowerment, independent of government, media and social conditioning, the breaking out of the plastic mass into human flesh and blood, vulnerability and tenderness, which is a good model for younger people and which I think they are now being attracted to after 20 years of the Reagan-Bush-Nixonian ugly spirit, put-down of the human spirit, devastation of the planet, assault on mother Earth, desensitization to the ecology, disinterest in expansive consciousness, (and) disinterest in the American tradition from Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman and expansive heart and awareness. . . ."

*

They were young men--and a few women--who gathered around Columbia University in New York during the World War II era and later in San Francisco's North Beach.

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