I lived worlds apart, not only geographically, but culturally, from the American Beat Generation of the late 1950’s. There I was, Iiving in a British colony in Central Africa, while they were living in California, in the San Francisco Bay area. An unlikely meeting of minds, to put it mildly.
Oddly enough, it was my Mother who unwittingly set off my obscure interest. We were holidaying in Beira, Mozambique. It was our nearest access to the ocean from Malawi. An entire day’s rail journey . I suppose I must have been between the age of 15 – 17, at the time. Anyway, there we were, in a small Portuguese speaking coastal town, and I’d run out of books to read. This was a disaster. My family read a lot. All the time. So my Mother caught the tram into town and returned several hours later with a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Seemingly it was the only ‘suitable’ English language book she could find. In those days parent were very vigilant about the ‘suitability’of books and films that young eyes could be permitted to view.
I dived into the book and was immediately enchanted. I’d never read anything like it. Hitherto I’d read kids’ books, some of the classics, and my Dad’s crime novels (Agatha Christie, Peter Cheyney, Rex Stout et al) and travel books. Intrepid journeys through jungles and over mountains, by ex-Army stalwarts; that sort of thing.
So to read about the free living, free thinking , philosophizing, Buddhist-addled, drunken Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous journey across America with his buddies for no other reason than they felt like it … I was blown away! The freedom! No planning, no equipment, no maps, porters, horses, floods, bandits, fires or poisonous insects … good grief! The Stream of Consciousness writing! The Buddhist Exotica! This was another Universe!
Jack Kerouac by Tom Palumbo circa 1956
Ten years later I stumbled across the Mayflower edition of The Dharma Bums which I still own despite my relocations around southern Africa. The pages have turned brown over the years – they’re excused, the book is over 50 years old – and the print is teeny-tiny. I remember being fascinated by the exploits of the two young men in the Sierra Nevada forests in search of solitude and freedom, via Zen practice.
Cascade Mountains SIERRA NEVADA
When I visited San Francisco in 2008 I begged my hosts to take me to the famed City Lights Bookstore, which they kindly did. I spent a happy half hour wandering through the store, paging through Ginsburg’s poetry and other Beat Generation writers. I couldn’t believe I was actually standing in the famous Beat Generation bookstore! Me – all the way from Africa, and over all the years. Wow! I spent precious dollars on City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology – which reminds me, I must dip into it again.
So when the Literary Hub Weekly (3 July 2017 ) tagged a Washington Post article by Jeff Weiss “ Speaking with the surviving members of the Beat Generation … “, I pounced on the article. The remaining icons are very elderly – Ferlinghetti is in his 90s . The elder writer who interested me most was Gary Snyder, wilderness advocate, Zen teacher, writer and poet. A brief thumbnail sketch says Gary Snyder is an American man of letters. Perhaps best known as a poet, he is also an essayist, lecturer, and environmental activist. He has been described as the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology”. Wikipedia.
I bought The Gary Snyder Reader – Prose, poetry and translations and it is sheer pleasure to open it and read at random. Here is a brief extract from Gary Snyder’s poem The Blue Sky:
Horse with lightening feet!
A mane like distant rain,
the turquoise horse,
a black star for an eye
white shell teeth.
If you’ve never read any of his writing, give it a try.In addition to his own poetry and essays, Snyder has been translating Japanese poetry and texts for years, some of which appears in my GS Reader. It will be time well spent.
Did the Beat Generation influence me? Yes, they did. I found their ideas about freedom exhilarating. My early life was regimented by boarding school and African colonial life neither of which encouraged hippy-style free thinking. And certainly not adventures in Oriental religion and philosophy.
The Beats forays into Buddhism were exotically fascinating to me in those early years, and turned me towards Buddhist teachings and practice, for which I will always be grateful.
So you see it’s true: reading books can change your life!