Looking for the Perfect Beat (Poet)

“I burned my only copy of Naked Lunch to start a fire.” — William S. Burroughs Jr.

The Beats have always been of tangential interest to me. I have certainly enjoyed what I’ve read, as pedestrian as it has been (e.g., On The Road, “Howl,” some Burroughs, etc.), but the only writer associated with their scene that I can claim that I’ve truly explored is Kenneth Patchen.

The Book of Martyrdom and ArtificeWith that said, these two new books have piqued my interest in a way nothing Beat-related has in years. The first, The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems 1937-1952 by Allen Ginsberg (Da Capo), edited by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan, is just that: a huge compendium of Ginsberg’s earliest written works, including over fifty of his earliest poems, all previously unpublished. I swear even Ginsberg’s lists, transcripts of conversations, drug stories, and other ephemera are laced with hints of his lyrical proficiency, and his constant — indeed life-long — drive toward the center of just what the hell is going on.

“Another way of looking at Allen Ginsberg is out of the corner of your eye while feigning intense interest in your food. But he will ask you to explain yourself. Always unanswerable questions with this man, like, ‘How much did you spend on lunch?’ He’ll do this purposefully over the course of an afternoon until the victim suddenly realizes how little he knows about what he’s actually doing. This don’t work on me too well, for I know the true nature of my mind – an impenetrable void thick enough to slice.”

So writes William Burroughs Jr. in the second, Cursed from Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs Jr. (Soft Skull), compiled and edited by David Ohle, which is a collection of journal entries, letters, and stories from the short, stunted life of “Billy Jr.” — most by him, but plenty from other names you know.

Cursed from BirthRaised by his grandparents after his dad (accidentally) shot his mom, Billy Jr. witnessed his dad’s quick rise to fame after Naked Lunch was published, which coincided with his own puberty. Cursed from Birth chronicles his attempts at getting his father’s attention, his mourning his mother’s death, his drinking, drug abuse, and the insanity that ensued, and finally, his dealing with it all through writing.

Kenneth Patchen once wrote, “Let us rejoice then, remembering all the grand (but deserved) things that somehow never managed to come our way,” but those words could’ve just as easily been penned by Burroughs Jr. His book isn’t the feel-good read of the year, but it’s damn well-written, and, like Ginsberg’s book, it’s a glimpse into the Beat world that wasn’t previously available.