“The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past”. William Faulkner.
The difficultly of an art form that consciously adopts the styles and concerns of a by-gone era is that at best it can be seen as a nostalgic homage (a stance which has all the emotional resonance of an 1980’s Levi’s ad) and, at worse, something worthy of satire. After all, shouldn’t we be always searching for the new, the relevant, the now. Well yes. But how does this explain the perennial obsession with long gone attitudes, styles, fashions, sounds and, in this case, language? After all language, and in particular the language of youth, is something that changes at dizzying speed- just ask any parent of teenagers, who, in a futile attempt to gain kudos with their off spring, uses the word ‘sick’ as an adjective for good and let them tell you about the soul destroying looks they receive. You just ain’t cool Daddio. What about using the language and forms of the 60’s (some would argue the apotheosis of British youth culture) in a way to describe the present? What would be the point? These were the questions I had to ask myself when reading Beat Blues and the Rhythm of Fools by contemporary beat poet Jason Disley. And, to be honest, I struggled to answer them- yeah man, I just didn’t dig.
Then, I thought some more. And, of course, came to the obvious conclusion that the past is never past. We build upon it, change it, reference it and shape it to fit the times. 60’s mod culture reflected the aspirations of an economically independent working class taking their inspirations from the cool of Italian ricostruzione; whereas, my own mod time in the late 70’s/ early 80’s was interracial, cynical and became the perfect musical soundtrack to unemployment, post-industrial malaise and a Britain in flames. Brixton burned to the beat of The Specials.
So, Beat poetry with its fervent opposition to the military-industrial complex; desire for sexual freedom; ecological concerns; open drug-use and the battle to retain the integrity of the self against rigid conformity- how could such a form be relevant today? I’m being rhetorical. Indeed the stripped back form and angry word play reminiscent of the Beats is everywhere from Rat Boy, to Kate Tempest and the excellent She Drew the Gun.
Clearly Beat’s romantic hope (Ginsberg was open about his love of Blake/Shelley) and political frustration is as important in an austerity Britain which has openly sold its youth down the river as it was ‘back in the day’.
This is where I believe Disley succeeds. His collection uses the beat form to openly question the values and events of our troubled times. From the opening line of the ‘Art That Changes Views’ he urges us to ‘Open your ears! Open your eyes! Revolutionise!’ to the directly post-Brexit ‘I’ve got The Post Referendrum Blues’ it’s a collection that doesn’t shy away from engagement with the now. Unashamedly direct in its political overtures- ‘This Sceptered Isle is awash with a virus of despair’- taken from the gloriously angry Celluar Zombies- Disley is clearly someone who fully understands the social responsibility of the poet. Another strength is the vivid imagery- ‘Marooned/ like a nation of Crusoes/Searching for footprints in the sand.’ Likewise his musicality and sense of rhythm: ‘Makingwavesinyourmind./Takingyoursoulonajourneytounwind/Stop!/Wait a minute!/Rewind.’ is another strength. A feature enhanced by the top quality playlist at the end of the anthology.
Occasionally you can’t help feeling that some poems could have done with a little more editing and that the self-conscious Beat speak- ‘Get freaky now, yeah yeah, Fire cracker in my mind’ is a little over-egged but these would be minor bum notes in what is an impressive collection. Indeed the spontaneous nature of the poems could be the perfect broadside to a world overloaded with 24 hour information: the only response is in the present. In this respect Beat poetry is still as relevant today as it was in the 50’s/60’s and, in the able hands of Mr. Disley, the beat looks set to go on and on…
For more information on Jason Disley try:
And to buy ‘Beat Blues and the Rhythm of Fools’:
For more on ‘Flash Harry’ try:
Or his blog: