Beat Thing, The

by David Meltzer
(2004)
   It was almost inevitable that david meltzer would address the subject of “the Beats.” One of the most moving images in the Beat Culture and the New America museum exhibit that traveled around the country in 1996 was a Harry Redl image of David and Tina Meltzer with son, just married and barely out of their teens—the classic image of the beatnik family. Although Meltzer has gone on record as claiming much of the interest in the Beats as decontextualized media hype, it is a subject he has circled and circled again. His interviews with San Francisco poets, The San Francisco Poets (1971), which has appeared in several editions, is perhaps his most popular book and is often a key text for readers trying to get a handle on Beat writers such as lew welch and gary snyder.
   The Beat Thing is Meltzer’s attempt to “take back” the Beat movement from the ahistoricizing market forces that have so deracinated it. This is the great work of his mature years, where he pulls together his considerable prosodic skills into a 155-page excavation of recent U.S. history. The poetry is a side show of various voices and forms: machine-gun riffs, a mix of long lines reminiscent of Warne Marsh’s cliché-free solos, and jabbing lines that recall the algebra of a Sonny Rollins solo. Although there are spaces of quiescence and reflection, this is a “noisy” poem that often overwhelms the reader with its mud flow of names, places, and things—some recognizable, some part of the historical process the author is trying to deconstruct. Meltzer is aware of how the reader may respond to the work. In the epilog to the work, Meltzer offers an explanation to his process: How easily narrative falls into place, realizes itself through a story-telling historian who sets out to frame a tangled constantly permutating chaos into a familiar & repeatable story w/out shadows or dead-ends; how impulsively memory organizes into a choir to tell a story of what it remembers symphonically, i.e., formally; even experimentalists practice w/in or against forms that have formed their relationship to writing & telling stories; history is the story of writing. The Beat Thing is organized into three sections. The initial section, “The Beat Thing looms up,” is alternately a deconstruction of received Beat culture in the 21st century (“Beat tour jackets T-shirts numbered prints of Beat photos by Redl Stoll McDarrah framed offered round the clock on Beat shopping channel”) and a warm memoir of real people and real places that have yet to be part of any beatnik bus tour. A tour-de-force of bop prosody is found in the section that begins with the question “What about Beat food?”: bowls of bar popcorn and beer in the afternoon look out the windows at tourists furtive up and down Grant Avenue or tostadas and chile rellenos in Mission tacqueria late at night when mariachi trio walk down narrow aisle breaking hearts.
   Maybe Meltzer is suggesting that the money machine has yet to find a way to commodify Beat food. He perhaps is also referencing the often impoverished, seat-of-the-pants lifestyle of the Beats where a meal out was an event to be savored. The second section is “Beat Thing: A Commentary,” which is really the historical context that plays out beneath the beatnik hijinks of the first section. The tone is darker—it almost serves as a displacement of the preceding section:
   . . . . . . . . . . . color tv minimum
   wage 75 cents an hour Burn All Reds
   kids wear bead chain dogtags
   Henry Wallace in Brooklyn speaks
   Farmer Yiddish to solidarity cheers . . .
   ah everyone’s apart
   together
   “Burn All Reds
   No Mercy For Spies
   Rosenberg Traitors Must Die”
   In this short section Meltzer alludes to the appearance of color TV, the low wages of marginal workers, popular front politics, the emergence of rhythm and blues, the Strategic Air Command antimissile defense system, and the communist hysteria culminating in the Rosenberg executions. The final section, “Primo Po Mo” seems an extension of the middle section with Meltzer riffing on “the bomb,” jazz, and an emerging gay culture as just a few of the particles whirling about the Meltzer Memory Cyclotron.
   So much of Beat literature is barely veiled autobiography, but, oddly, so little of that material is self-reflexive. The major exceptions that come to mind are john clellon holmes’s late writing, michael mcclure’s Scratching the Beat Surface, and Meltzer’s The Beat Thing. It is Meltzer’s work alone that is framed neither as a memoir or a critical essay but rather as a creative text that seems to lie in an interzone between critique, autobiography, and poetry. It is one of the most innovative works to emerge from the Beat community in many years.
   Joel Lewis

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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