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Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Heart of Beat Street

Just getting back from a trip to San Francisco and thinking about the Beats in The Beat on Ruby’s Street. I of course had to make a pilgrimage to City Lights (and my husband agreed as long as we could stop by Jerry Garcia’s former home later.)

I expected something like the indie bookstores in New York, with books (and sometimes cats) crowded on tables and shelves in tiny, dark rooms filled with chatter and street noise. But City Lights was quiet. The rooms were light, like most rooms in California, there was ample space to read and the staff was kind and inviting. Most of all, I noticed the hushed, reverent atmosphere of a shrine. Pilgrimage, indeed.

I bought Howl and Kaddish and an anthology of a number of Beat poets. Reading Howl to my husband later, I realized how much it was meant to be read aloud. I’ve talked about the story of Howl elsewhere in this blog—but reading Kaddish made a deeper impression. It made me realize that while Kerouac has become the face of the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg is its soul.

It was Ginsberg’s language that birthed the dark heart and the beatific rhythms of the Beats; and his courage at a time when being gay meant considerable danger and heartache, that encouraged future generations to come into the light. Kaddish shows us what Ginsberg went through growing up with a mother who was severely mentally ill. The sorrow is almost unbearable; the language precise and sublime.

I related to Ginsberg’s story because my grandmother was also mentally ill and spent years at Greystone, an institution in New Jersey where Ginsberg’s mother also resided at times. I never knew my grandmother and much of her story is lost to me; but Kaddish gave me an idea of what she must have gone through.

If much of Ginsberg’s work may not be accessible to middle school readers, why did I set Ruby’s story in 1958 in the heart of a Beat Generation family? I had been fascinated by the Beats myself at 12, long before I started reading them, because the world they lived in seemed freer and more alive than the one I was living in. The young character I created is reaching for something new and finds it in language and poetry.

Ruby’s story isn’t an easy one; but she finds solace, or at least glimpses of it, in art, writing and language. That’s what the Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg did so brilliantly, and that’s what I want my readers to find. However you find it doesn’t matter—just know it’s out there, waiting for you.

Poems you can share with your tween:

Constantly Risking Absurdity — Lawrence Ferlinghetti
My Alba — Allen Ginsberg
Weather — Hettie Jones
Trees — Jack Kerouac
People at Night — Denise Levertov