Wednesday, November 29, 2006



Women of the Beat Generation by Brenda Knight
(Conari Press, Berkeley, CA, 1996)


San Francisco's Burning by Helen Adam
(Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1985)

Women of the Beat Generation may be a collection of writing by women, but it is a book about men -- my life with Neal, my life with LeRoi, and a couple of my life with Jack.

It is also a book of intersections with rather than about the Beat Generation, a sort of degrees of separation compendium. Certainly there are a number of people included who would be regarded as being part of it. The section entitled "The Muses" (= "wife") can be taken unquestioningly; but "The Precursors" — Helen Adam, Madeleine Gleason, Jane Bowles & Josephine Miles — draws a longish bow, & "The Writers" brings up the perennial question of just what was / is the poetry of the Beat Generation, who were its proponents & does it still exist.

Too difficult to answer? Then answer this. Is Jan Kerouac "beat" because of who her father was? Or could Denise Levertov, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a woman of the Beat Generation? & if she's not, which is what I believe, then could the reason she is included be solely to beef up the content of the book? & what does that then say about the remaining selections?

This is a book supposedly about women, but in the main it defines them by their relationships with men. Few are allowed to stand on their own, for even those who have made it on their own are demeaned by a selection that presents not their best work, but writing stylistically related to or about their more famous partners.

In Women of the Beat Generation, Helen Adam is described as "Godmother and matriarch of the San Francisco Renaissance… important influence on the up-and-coming poets who would later be known as the Beats." It was more for her presence, the poetry readings she convened & her support for a younger generation of writers that this description is given, for she writes in the traditional ballad form of her Scottish heritage.

San Francisco's Burning is described as "A Ballad Opera". The book of the musical play was written in partnership with her sister Pat who also wrote some of the lyrics. It's set in a supernatural world that overlaps the real San Francisco just before the fire, or vice versa.

Unfortunately, the printed book, apart from the addition of some marvellous line drawings by Jess which, I'm guessing, are based on actual performance, probably doesn't do it justice. Adam was a noted performer who took part in most if not all the performances of the play and I feel it needs her lifeblood rather than printer's ink to give it impact.


Mark Young is a poet whose work has been appearing both in print & online for nearly 50 years. He blogs here and edits Otoliths.


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