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Back in Black on the Beaten Path

So you’ve just completed the inevitable arc from derision to interest to all-out consumer craving over bell-bottoms, and now a new, or rather, a renewed trend has reared up along the ever-jagged cutting edge. And worse, this latest expression of the herd—oops, vanguard—involves more than fond memories of the Brady Bunch recollected in tranquility, or the ability to wear clogs with a straight face. This is a trend of the hip-lit variety, fashion as totality; in which the clothes are meant to mirror the artistic soul of the bearer; sophistication is signalled with the accessory of a dogeared paperback; and “la vie intellectuelle” is a self-consciously pursued but inevitably condensed to a prefabricated “look.”

Well, put away that crocheted cap, turn off the Pearl Jam, forget you ever heard of Seattle. Your days of automatic street cred simply for moshing and getting your hair to hang just so over one eye are over. It’s time to get serious—break out the black turtleneck, rent French gangster films, and grab your Ginsberg. Beat is back.

Best of all, the fans could still wear their Doc Martens.

When did the resurgence of this particular brand of ennui and high-seriousness first occur? The obvious answer is that beatnicity itself never fully went away, even though the Beatniks themselves ceased to exist as a coherent group about 1960. With the exception of the early Allen Ginsberg, the beat writers were essentially celebrity-artists, Hemingways minus the extraordinary talent, whose “immortality” was insured not by their work but by their lifestyle. Naturally the beat image of the rebellious drifter and the antisocial bohemian is a nearly irresistable pose, and it continued to inspire (with mind-bending irony) countless youths to celebrate anarchic individualism by donning a uniform (jeans-and-turtleneck) and gathering (preferably in large groups) in coffeehouses to brood and read bad poetry together—at least until Mom and Dad had paid the last tuition bill. And in the early ’90s, this familiar rite of passage blossomed into newfound popularity for urban poetry readings.

The recent commercial rediscovery of the Beats was inevitable, once coffeehouse poetry became one of those “underground” movements that everybody knows about. The culture industry finally recognized in it all the magic ingredients: it’s gritty, urban, and edgy; the people’s poets could preen (and dress) like rock stars and have even less of a need to carry a tune; it’s “deep” enough to seem elitist yet simple enough to be popular; and best of all, the fans could still wear their Doc Martens. Beautiful. Enter Max Blagg.

As readers of The Baffler know, Blagg is the poet laureate of the ad world, whose verse-spouting Gap commercials last year (“Sky fits heaven, so ride it / Child fits mother, so hold your baby tight,” etc.) heralded the commercial dawn of the rebeat era; the commodification of the Poet had officially begun. Such is the power of advertising and image that Blagg became a bit of a cult-hero himself and people even assumed he was authentic (although perhaps this is not surprising in a society in which Robert Bly’s poetry is thought to have merit). At any rate, the message was clear: all it takes to be a poet is the willingness to declaim—and wear the right clothes.

And the beat-biz just keeps gathering steam. Esquire Gentleman recently announced “we’re deep in the midst of a beat revival,” and promoted beat style as “a ’90s reaction against ’80s self-consciousness … Beat has always been a style for people who don’t want to be bothered with style.” Undoubtedly such antistyle types will be unmoved by the article’s accompanying photos of Donna Karan’s, Calvin Klein’s, and Dries Van Noten’s “Beatnik Collections for ‘93.”

Another writer drooled, “the new beat style is cooler than iced café mocha on a warm day … It’s affected by Generation Xers and tail-end baby boomers who mix cappuccino with hour-long conversations, poetry readings amid acoustic jazz and blues. (Imagine! An hour-long conversation!) Even Robert Martins, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, entered the fray. Noting that the object of the new trend is to look bohemian and intellectual rather than replicate a specific period’s dress, he opined that the current look is a blend: “The 50s coming back and the 70s coming back in the 90s, all of which come out of some kind of matrix of existentialism.”

Whatever you do, if you’re aspiring to beathood, don’t leave your matrix at home!

The Gap’s new celebrities-who-wore-khakis ad campaign now includes Jack Kerouac, looking hardened and compelling in pants you too can buy. There’s a “Kerouac Jack’s Bongo Bar” in Chicago, where upscale bohemians choose from a full array of wines amid enormous murals of Jack himself surrounded by his celebrity friends (whose glorious faces are rendered not in Pollock-style abstraction, but with painstaking clarity so no mistake about Kerouac’s cool is possible). Kerouac is clearly the poster boy of beat nostalgia—perhaps because his On The Road is such a cherished fantasy ride (and such a quick read) or perhaps because he is conveniently dead and therefore instantly iconic. His aesthetic, the transcendence of sensation and onrushing action, and his pursuit of slick style over substantive content, lend themselves nicely both to advertising and that ineluctable late-twentieth-century “art form”—the video image.

And so, predictably enough, beatniks on video came to the global coffeehouse when MTV broadcast an all-poetry edition of its well-known “Unplugged” series. Seven writers, including Maggie Estep (barefoot), Edwin Torres (goatee), and Henry Rollins (tattoo), performed their work in what Caryn James of the New York Times described as “a café setting that duplicates the spoken-word clubs that have sprung up in the last few years and pays homage to the days of the Beats (People actually hold cigarettes; definitely retro.)”

In case anyone should fail to recognize that this was very hip stuff, John J. O’Connor, in another review of the show for the Times, reminded us: “The spirit of Allen Ginsberg and the Beats is palpable.” And while most of the reviewers acknowledged that the poetry itself was eminently forgettable, nearly all strained for a solemnity that this display of beatnik high-mindedness evidently warranted. One critic stated: “You may not admire their wordplay, but you will be impressed with their energy, showmanship, and sheer gall—if anyone can make poetry cool, MTV can.” Caryn James even gamely proclaimed that “there’s nothing to say an MTV moment can’t be poetic, as long as you don’t think Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot own the poetry franchise” and that “street poetry is a vocal, visceral expression of contemporary life.”

Please. While all this interest in and celebration of poetry is laudable, poetry itself is clearly not the point, or surely a little more effort would have been expended on it. Poems do not have to equal Arnold and Eliot to be refreshing, interesting or insightful; but the producers of the show did not aspire to achieve anything much beyond atmosphere. The “Unplugged” poets offered little more than self-absorbed musings, or pained, soft-headed critiques of the most obvious deficiencies of the modern world. The new beats proved to be not only derivative; they were dull and sanctimonious as well. Their “poems” were merely a gimmick, amounting to nothing but broadsides for correct MTV attitude. New beats “hold” cigarettes because they want to look jaded; they borrow clichés from another era because they lack the imagination to dream up anything new.

The fin-de-siècle beat movement, so far at any rate, is merely another tired, contrived appropriation of a shallow aesthetic, to be enjoyed on the level of a rejuvenated fashion fad, or even as a stimulant to popular poetic expression—not as an intellectual phenomenon. Kerouac’s creed, now devoid even of freshness, is being parboiled to nothing more than performance-art dreck, poetry consumed by commerciality, utter conformity masquerading as rebellion.

It’s enough to make anyone want to read Shelley.