"The typewriter is holy, the poem is holy, the voice is holy, the hearers are holy, the ecstasy is holy!" Allen Ginsberg, "Footnote to Howl"
The Beat Generation, especially its literary component, believed itself to be privy to an internal landscape not readily available to the mainstream. They saw the sacred within the profane, a deep shallowness to the "American dream," and themselves as being ahead of a curve that straight society had yet to perceive.
Iconic literary works came to the fore and, in many ways, with their attempts to rouse, to challenge, to question, defined the movement. History has proclaimed Jack Kerouac’s "On the Road," Allen Ginsberg’s "Howl," and William Burrough’s "Naked Lunch" as the most seminal works of the genre but, overall, "beat-lit" evolved through the poems and prose of many not the least of whom were such now-familiar wordsmiths as Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso.
Kerouac, of course, has remained central to the discussion. One of those writers who arrives on the scene every so often to capture the attitudes, aspirations, and "music" of his time, not unlike Mark Twain with "Huckleberry Finn" or Ernest Hemingway with "The Sun Also Rises," he became known as "the voice of his generation."
It wasn’t long before Academia began to take notice, due in no small part to an increasing number of graduate students selecting "the beats" as a takeoff point for theses in philosophy, psychology, sociology, literature, music and assorted other disciplines. The once maligned and ridiculed cultural stepchild slowly began to emerge from the darkness.
Easily the most quantum of these shifts occurred when, in 1974, the "Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics" was founded at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman.
With programs accentuating both "traditional and experimental approaches to creative writing in poetry, prose and translation within a variety of genres," the Kerouac School, referred to as "TKS" by faculty, students and alumni, attempts to impart a historical and cultural awareness of literary studies as part of its curriculum.
Obviously, this is an institution of higher learning that dances to the "beat" of a different drummer. But then along came the middle of June of this year and all bets were off. Reacting to a bombshell from the powers that be at Naropa, the students took to the streets the "cyber streets," as it were.
The press release read: "Naropa University announced today a reduction in force as part of a systematic university-wide initiative to reallocate and better invest its resources in alignment with the strategic priorities of the University." The stated reason for the cutbacks? That Naropa "must have a balanced and sustainable budget to ensure long-term health of the Institution." Now, where’s the groove in that?
Well, the student body just couldn’t dig that crazy beat! Setting up barricades at the intersections of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, the protesters, under the tag "SaveTKS," issued their manifesto while declaring their solidarity with the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Citing an oft-repeated mantra from Allen Ginsberg’s "Howl," they headed their online stance with: "I’m with you in Rockland!"
They went on to state that "budget cuts and a paranoid climate on Naropa campus has made 23 long time Naropa support staff fired without notice and swift program cuts are happening across the board. The likelihood of TKS staying intact in a potentially hostile administration is at HIGH risk. Make your voice known. Save THE JACK KEROUAC SCHOOL!!!"
Oh, don’t you just dig the commotion the most? Has anyone seen my gas mask? Even Anne Waldman’s "Socratic Rap" class was overtaken by discussions dealing with the sudden budget cuts. Gatherings by students, faculty and alumni where grievances were aired became commonplace. The upside, of course, is that "poetic rants" are once again on the rise. As are sit-ins and teach-ins at Naropa (under the sycamore tree — a geographic touchstone on campus, I would imagine).
It’s a drag, man. Who knows where it will lead? What other school allows a "beat" sensibility to flourish so? And, as Ginsberg might have said, students, especially those "who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz," are among the holiest of the holy.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.
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