Beatitude-nik? a book review

Beatniks weren’t my generation but I’ve read Kerouac and Ginsberg. I find their spiritual ramblings to be egocentric, self-absorbed, nonsensical, heretical, tried and tired, misogynistic, fanciful and bland, Manic self-aggrandizement enshrined as wisdom. From a literary perspective, I appreciate a lot of what they did–how they broke rules and cast aspersions at convention. There is honest searching. There are moments of epiphany and wonder. There is also the beauty of the bygone era–non-traditional nostalgia.  Yet I don’t find in their writings a compelling narrative (even with all the sex, drinking and drugs). All this tells you that reading a book that urges the common thread from the Apostolic age to the Beat Generation a little out of my ordinary frame.

Andy William Smith (aka Andy Sunfrog) is an English prof, DJ, activist, poet, blogger, PCUSA elder, aspiring preacher and Vanderbilt seminarian. In Beat is Beatitude Smith examines Beat culture appreciatively for the ways in which Kerouac et al. rejected societal norms and the ways they lived life in the present.  For Smith there’s an overlap between the counter-cultural vision of Jesus and the Beats. He writes:

The great American novelist & author of On the Road, practicing alcoholic & Catholic-Buddhist poet Jack Kerouac said, that the beats in beatnik came from the Beatitudes. “Beat doesn’t mean tied or bused or beat so much as. . .beatific,” Kerouac penned, calling us all “to be in the state of beatitude, like St. Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness, cltivating joy of heart.” (3)

Smith joins his voice with Kerouac & the Beats & Jesus as he celebrates life, experience and the journey. In poem and sermon (poetic prose?) he explores the spiritual life. We hear Smith’s joyful quest and his rediscovery of the Christian faith (coinciding with his journey to sobriety). Smith doesn’t idealize the beatniks and acknowledges their lapses, but he sees a great deal he admires:

Kerouac &  [Neal] Cassady were right about living in the moment, about rejecting the ways of the world, about the complementary teachings of Jesus & Buddha, about  the spirituality of everything & everyday life, even & especially about the spiritual aspects of travel, of an itinerant lifestyle on the road. Jesus & Paul & many disciples & Early Church Movement Folk certainly lived “on the road.” But Kerouac and Cassady were wrong about alcohol & drugs & how to treat women (13)

My own list of what they got right and wrong differs in some respects from Smith, but I appreciate that he appropriates their legacy critically.

Smith’s collection of poems and sermons is playful but uneven. I enjoyed the creative handling of biblical texts: Paul, the Cross, Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer.  I also liked hearing pieces of his own Godward journey with Presbyterians and anarchists, with addiction and twelve-steps. Yet I felt like I could penetrate far below the surface of the poems. I wondered if I would appreciate these more as performance art, spoken word in a dimly lit coffee shop. Without the jazz these remain opaque to me.

I am happy to admit that it is probably just me. I am not as progressive as the author. I am not as cool. I didn’t get every literary reference or poetic allusion. Though it is me and for me this book is just a three.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

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