Gerald Nicosia, who wrote the definitive treatment of Jack Kerouac’s life and work, “Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac,” has been a chronicler of the Beat Generation, every bit as lost as Ernest Hemingway’s Lost Generation post-World War I.
Nicosia’s recent work is “Beat Scrapbook.” According to Nicosia, “‘Beat Scrapbook’ aims to tell my experience of Beat, and to preserve memory of the Beat people (people I see as Beat) who touched me deeply, people I loved.” The poems are conversational and clear, reflecting Nicosia’s feelings about the people he knew, many of them now lost to history.
Before looking at Gerald Nicosia’s collection of poems written as a tribute to the many “Beat” writers he knew, it is important to identify the Beat generation.
They were part of the post-World War II movement of disillusioned youth rebelling against the middle-class materialism of America, and many of them felt “beat down” or haunted by the horrors of the war. Some of the Beat writers became famous: Allen Ginsberg for his corrosive poem “Howl,” Jack Kerouac for his bohemian landmark novel “On the Road,” and Lawrence Ferlinghetti who published them and wrote a best-selling poetry book, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” himself. Gary Snyder, the model for Kerouac’s hero in “The Dharma Bums,” got a Pulitzer Prize for his collection of poetry, “Turtle Island.”
Nicosia describes Snyder at “almost 90” reading at a Mill Valley library.
Looking stooped and shrunken
And oh so vulnerable
Coughing from deep in his chest
He took the mike
And held us spellbound
For over an hour
There’s a bitter humor in Nicosia’s poem about Gregory Corso whose ashes, buried in the English cemetery in Rome with Keats and Shelley, may be removed due to unpaid rent.
They say you’re not paying
Your rental bill
For the cemetery plot
But who’s paying the bill
For Keats and Shelley
Who rest beside you?
Corso was a difficult man not even allowed in bookstores that sold his work.
Some of the starkest remembrances are of people not directly connected to the Beat movement like a man on death row called Sugar Bear or the folk singer, Steve Goodman. Richard Brautigan may be considered a post-Beat writer and was very popular in the 1960s, known for his novel “Trout Fishing in America.” When he wasn’t popular, and critics dismissed him as “simplistic,” a minor talent, Brautigan — a heavy drinker — committed suicide. Nicosia’s brief reminiscence is touching.
“I’m writing this poem because/it’s the only way I have/of reaching you now.”
His poem about the Black playwright Ntozake Shange is poignant and a rich tribute.
You were working almost till the last minute
Till the last ounce of sacred Zake fuel
Had been burned up in an all-out effort
To lead us
Out of darkness
And onto a solid path
That unlike your frail body
Could not be taken away.
She is best remembered for the theater piece “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”
Gerald Nicosia has captured the ghosts of a past generation that urges the reader to visit these writers again. The paperback is available on Amazon.
Michael Corrigan graduated from San Francisco State with an Master of Arts degree in English and creative writing. He was active in theater and attended the American Film Institute. He retired from Idaho State University as an instructor of English and speech communications. He has written several books, including “Confessions of a Shanty Irishman,” “Mulligan” and “These Precious Hours.” NPR broadcast his play for two readers: “Letters from Rebecca.”