Aram Saroyan — Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch & the Beat Generation

At the behest of poet Ted Berrigan, a young Aram Saroyan interviewed a becalmed and nearly forgotten Jack Kerouac in 1967 for the Paris Review. Saroyan describes this meeting much later in an article for The Poetry Foundation. It is a watershed moment, one generation testing the next, and Saroyan walks away with Jack’s benediction, “You’ll do, Saroyan.”

I doubt that Kerouac had in mind for the young writer to go forth and pen the History of the Beats, but 12 years later, Saroyan attempted just that. Perhaps the tired Kerouac recognized a comrade-in-arms, as Saroyan’s sensibilities would have fit right in with the tea-loving, electrified word slingers of the past. His official biography for his collected papers at the University of Connecticut Libraries reads, “In the late 1960s Saroyan experimented with marijuana and began to develop a career as a poet.” Sounds about right; let’s go!

Genesis Angles is no straight-ahead biography, but a long prose poem in its own right. Saroyan attempts to capture the feeling of the era, the mad rush toward an uncertain future and away from a stifling mid-century American mindset that had all but disappeared by the time he started his journey.

Saroyan identifies the Eisenhower years with the monster movies that were throwing their own existential warnings up on the screens of the ’50s and early ’60s. “We were being condemned to endure a complete rescheduling of human experience: our routines no longer in any relation to the planet or the landscape or our neighbors. We had willingly locked ourselves up with comfort and convenience and suffered an immediate transformation. It was we ourselves who had become The Thing, The Blob, inside our private Houses of Wax.”

The degree that Saroyan is successful in capturing the Beat gestalt, from the far remove of 1979, depends on how susceptible you are to that particular brand of amphetamine-driven patter. Me? I can’t get enough.

On Jack Kerouac meeting Neal Cassidy: “Now this is where it did combust because what happened was Jack saw Neal and listened to his wild, never-get-a-word-in-edgewise, spontaneous patter … this man was a rapid, word chasing man chasing word chasing man chasing time chasing space—lookout! just like his driving—saved by exposure and the rare posture of ecstatic brotherhood.”

On Allen Ginsburg: “Allen had the conceptual center of the universe in his belly and breath … so that then he could inhale and exhale planets, and snow storms, windows, and paper towels, Mickey Mouse and Hollywood, tits, and cocks, ambushes, and semesters, toothbrushes, and Coca-Cola—the whole litterbug earth with Indians and business man and women giving birth, inside his nature, and available.”

Strangely absent from this cluttered stage is Welch himself. Whether outshined by the titanic personalities around him, or just a quiet guy whose poems did the speaking for him, I didn’t come away with any better sense of the man than when I started. This isn’t a deficit in research; the University of Connecticut’s Saroyan collection contains a recorded interview with Welch and David Meltzer from 1969, and Saroyan himself interviewed poet Joanne Kryger about Welch in 1977, presumably while doing research for the book.

Perhaps the problem is that—like a total eclipse, or some other natural rarity—Welch began disappearing as soon as he appeared. You have to catch these things when they happen or you’re out of luck. Until next time.

Saroyan best captures Welch’s spirit in a few throw away lines describing the importance of becoming a poet:

“Be a poet and save the world forever.
And don’t forget to take a sweater.
Put this flower in the peanut bottle with some cold water.
It’ll be here when you get home.
That’s the way the universe works.”

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