Book Review: Can't Stop the Beat

When you think about the Beat Generation what usually comes to mind are the dominant poets and writers of that time... Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Corso... all men. They are certainly the people I studied in school. But less known were the women involved in that movement, forced into the background simply because of the gender stereotypes of the time, and frankly, we've missed out. ruth weiss (always spelled in lower case) is one of last living Beat poets and one of the pioneering women of the era. ruth weiss was most likely the first to blend Jazz and poetry (a form that the men of the movement were largely credited and known for) and she was called "the goddess of the Beat" generation among her contemporaries. Now in her 80s, she recently came out with a new book, Can't Stop the Beat: The Life and Words of a Beat Poet.

The book is broken up into three main works: "Ten Ten," "I Always Thought You Black," and "Compass," but also includes shorter poems, personal photos, and recounted memories and notes throughout. Whether you are a fan of Beat poetry or not, what is fascinating about this book is that it is really half poetry and half memoir (or perhaps memoir in poetry form), which also makes it very accessible. Reading her poetry feels like stepping back in time to that period of 1950s Beat Generation San Francisco and it becomes as much a historical read as it is one of art.

In "I Always Thought You Black," she celebrates her relationship with African Americans and their influence while it chronicles her journey from New York, to Chicago, until she finally settles in San Francisco's Beat scene. Her style simultaneously uses straightforward narrative and emotion-laden imagery so that it captures each moment as if it freshly occurred, even though she is often speaking of the past and connecting it to her present. You also get a wonderful sense of the freedom she felt living this alternative lifestyle, even as it came with financial struggles and sometimes danger (ruth weiss had a tendency to walk through San Francisco alone at night - yikes!). In many ways her experiences feel almost innocent. I found "I Always Thought You Black" very easy to read and illuminating. "Compass," on the other hand, is a stream of consciousness, unedited journal written when she traveled on a 4 1/2 month trip through Mexico in 1958 and 1959 and it is a little harder to interpret exactly what is going on. There are snips of stories not completely told, the background information of the people mentioned isn't filled in and some of these must be intuited through small clues. However, what it captures is the constantly changing and always-the-same disconnection that one gets when traveling through an unfamiliar environment and culture. At times it resonates elation, boredom, exhaustion, sadness, and joy.

In general, if you're either a fan of Beat poetry or just interested in the period I think this is a great addition to your poetry shelf. It's much less hedonistic and political than some of the more well known Beat poets, but it is intensely personal and her language has a wonderful pared down clarity that sings off the page. This would also translate well for those who are involved in the modern Slam Poetry movement. And I personally love that we still have a poet of this era who is producing art to this day.

You can find Can't Stop the Beat: The Life and Words of a Beat Poet, by ruth weiss at Amazon or the publisher's website, Divine Arts Media.


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