Thursday, 31 March 2011

Hey Jack Kerouac

I have a glaring gap in my knowledge of modern poetry. To some, it will seem like a sacrilegious one. I've never read the Beat Poets. And, I have to be honest, I've never quite understood why I should read the Beat Poets.

I'm 40 years old. I know a huge stack of poets in the "around 50" age bracket. And most of those people hero-worship the Beat writers. I've lost count of the number of people of that age who've told me it was Kerouac, Ginsberg et al. who first got them turned on to literature. I think that's fantastic. Anything that gets anyone reading and writing has to be commended. But I think I must have been just slightly too young to catch onto why the Beat writers were significant. I grew up on the Mersey Sound; most of my favourite modern poets were either inspired and mentored by McGough and Henri, or reacted against them.

This is the thing. For me, what the Mersey Sound poets did was real. I could look out my bedroom window as I was growing up, see the shipyards and the river, the two cathedrals, the Liver birds, the Tower Restaurant - the Liverpool icons that I shared with Roger and his contemporaries. They wrote about stuff that I could relate to: the first day at school, the fear of the end of the world (1981 was a paranoid year), and all that slightly bonkers romanticism as I got old enough to understand what romanticism was. What people have told me about the Beat poets doesn't even touch that world. Was there any relevance in Jack road-trippin' and substance-abusin' his way across the highways of America? It was a million miles away from my experience, my hopes and dreams, and what I saw out of my window every day.

OK, poetry doesn't have to be directly relevant to daily life to be meaningful. Some of the best poetry transcends it altogether. I've already written on here about how much The Waste Land inspired me, and I don't think it has a shred of connection with the day-to-day life I live! Poetry works if it inspires dreams. It's just that, for me, there have always been poets other than the Beat poets who have seemed more real, more accessible, better able to inspire those dreams for me.

So this is a plea, to those of you who love the Beat poets. Please tell me exactly what I'm missing. Let me know how and why they inspired you - something that's going to make me want to immerse myself in their world too. I want to understand what it is you feel when you read those works. I want to understand what makes them classics. But before I can do that, I need a way in. And don't feel you can't contribute if you weren't old enough to read the Beat poets when they were contemporary. If you've newly discovered them, that might be even more exciting.

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