Knights of the Road

Tom Clark

  • This is the Beat Generation: New York, San Francisco, Paris by James Campbell
    Vintage, 320 pp, £7.99, May 2000, ISBN 0 09 928269 0

When Allen Ginsberg’s Beat vision-quest came through England in the spring of 1965, I was appointed by this famous renegade minstrel to set down his legend for the Paris Review. Ginsberg’s last words in our interview came in response to an inquiry about the role of command in the compositional process. Sometimes when he was at work on his poems, he declared radiantly, he was overcome by ‘a sense of being self-prophetic master of the universe’.

That empowering sense, a feeling that he had a special mission, ‘an immediate Messianic thing’ involving ‘movements of history and breaking down the civilisation’, had originated nearly two decades earlier, Ginsberg confided, in an auditory hallucination of William Blake intoning ‘Ah, Sunflower’ to him ‘like God had a human voice’. James Campbell, who introduces a note of irony into his reworking of twice-told Beat tales, refers to Ginsberg’s historic undergraduate illumination as ‘hand-held’ – perhaps an allusion to a key detail in what he had said to me: the fact that an act of masturbation had triggered Blake’s phantasmal arrival in his East Harlem tenement flat. This account of the revelatory plunge into Godhead (‘the ceremony of his election’), often cited over the years as Beat Scripture, is quoted at length again here, ending with the poet’s optimistic verdict as to its meaning for his future life: ‘The spirit of the universe was what I was born to realise.’

Campbell’s tour of Beat legend begins with his subjects’ youthful exploration of criminal behaviour and moves on through many picaresque adventures, battles with psychic monsters, tiltings against windmills (normality is most often the enemy), pointless side-trips into illusory discoveries and confused rhizomatic intertanglings of relation and motive. He also shows how Ginsberg’s quest led him back to the original Blakean delusion of grandeur. Throughout this underground romance, that first infusion of ‘divine inspiration’ remains for Ginsberg what opiates are for his fellow Beat quester, William Burroughs: a way of attaining to ‘vision’. But Ginsberg’s heroic mission includes something else as well: an implicit claim to the Beat throne. And more: ‘I am high and naked,’ this indomitable Ecdysiac Knight exclaims, splashing into the 1960s on the last page of Campbell’s hard-eyed reconstruction of the legend, ‘and I am King of the Universe.’

When we met in England, Ginsberg had abdicated another impromptu throne, as King of the May (Kral Majales) in Prague. He had been expelled for taking off his clothes during a reading to his student subjects. Further prophetic challenges lay in store. We went on a pilgrimage to Glastonbury. There, after pausing under the great conical chimney of the abbey kitchen to scribble notes on the display of chivalric devices, arms and armour, he stood in the chilly drizzle over what was said to be the grave of King Arthur and chanted an extended, improvised rabbinical-druidic hymn. It evoked the strength and innocence of Blake’s Albion and ended on what seemed to me, at the time, a strange remark, perhaps a challenge hurled from king to king: ‘British poets are cowardly!’

Most legends have variants. The Arthurian story locates the mythic King’s remains not at Glastonbury but in fabulous Avalon. Campbell puzzles out the meanings of legendary Beat episodes by offering alternative readings: providing, for example, ten different descriptions of the object that Burroughs was aiming at when he shot his wife in the head in Mexico (champagne glass, shot glass, highball glass, wine glass, gin glass, water glass, tin can, apple, apricot, grape), and six possibilities for the kind of paper on which Jack Kerouac typed out the original hundred-foot scroll of On the Road (teletype paper, Japanese drawing paper, oilskin art paper, shelf-paper, canister-paper, tracing paper).

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