Andy Clausen’s “Beat: A First-Hand Account of the Latter Days of the Beat Generation”

Reviewed by Arnold Snyder

This book is a treasure trove of stories about the poets and writers we now think of as the beats — Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Micheline, Peter Orlovsky, Diane DiPrima, Anne Waldman, Ray Bremser, Bob Kaufman, Harold Norse, Philip Whalen, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski and many others.

Clausen was not there in the 1950s heyday of the beats when most of these characters were labeled the “beat generation” by the lame media struggling to understand them. But in the 60s and 70s and since, he got to know them all, hung out with them, did poetry readings with them and was accepted and respected by them as one of them. Ginsberg became his mentor and Corso became one of his close friends.

This is a fun book to read. Clausen describes what to expect from it early on:

I will try and keep you awake with stories of the latter-day Beats and they might pop up out of sequence, rolling out of my mind like a film edited by Dziga Vertov, dreams, subplots, asides, but all of it the way I saw and heard it. You’ll get to know me and you can decide how accurate I am . . . Sometimes I’ve paraphrased or approximated, but when you read this you will hear it like it was yesterday.

Having personally heard Clausen read his poetry hundreds of times in the 1970s, I can attest to the fact that his voice and his style come through beautifully in this long, rambling memoir. It’s written in many ways more like poetry than prose. It’s not a chronological retelling of his experiences with these characters, but a never-ending series of random anecdotes that jump all over the place time-wise.

I’ve mentioned in other reviews on this site that one of the reasons I like both Henry Miller’s and Charles Bukowski’s prose is that you can open any of their books anywhere and just start reading and they capture you. Their prose rings of poetry. Clausen’s writing is the same. Here’s how he describes the scene where a small group of poets are gathered in San Francisco prior to attending a reading by Ginsberg:

Out of the cracked for air kitchen window, one could hear the big bassoon boats and oboe tugs, big notes expanding, shaking the potato fog as Karl Malden’s 400-horse interceptor engine roars hopping an asphalt mogul and the eye-poultice crisp blue drinkability of the Hamm’s Beer sign, hear the tom-toms, ‘from the land of sky blue waters, Hamm’s the beer refreshing, Hamm’s Beer,’ and the Chinese sounds like Mozart midst Slavic proverbs as new money staggers into dark limos and Spanglish and Calexico blasts from boombox sidewalks dancing and wall shaking low riders with the streetside boo wafting and David Moe wants us all to stop our attempts at humor and parsing of the day’s news and listen to his new poem.

I knew Andy in the 1970s when he was a fixture at the poetry readings in Berkeley and San Francisco. At the time, I knew he was connected with a few of the beat poets. He introduced me to Jack Micheline one night at the Coffee Gallery in San Francisco. He’d named his son “Cassidy,” after beat legend Neal Cassady. I read somewhere that Allen Ginsberg said the first time he saw Andy read he felt he was seeing a young Neal Cassady.

I used to haunt the poetry readings in the Bay area to do comedy in the guise of poetry, antics more or less tolerated by the poetry crowd. I must have seen Andy read hundreds of times through the 1970s, mostly at the Starry Plough Irish Pub and La Salamandra in Berkeley, but also at the Coffee Gallery and Minnie’s Can Do Club in San Francisco and other local poets hangouts. I was a poetry pretender, but Andy was the real thing — passionate and boisterous. He was prolific. I don’t think I ever saw him read the same poem twice.

He was a working man, a hard-drinking hod carrier and strong as an ox. He used to brag about how many one-armed push-ups he could do and I saw him demonstrate this talent on many a barroom floor.

Clausen lived his entire life for poetry and was as deeply connected to the beat poets as anyone alive. Ginsberg praised him, traveled with him, invited him to do readings with him, as did Gregory Corso and many other well-known beat poets. Yet, Clausen has remained relatively unknown. If you go to the Poetry Foundation website that lists thousands of poets, Clausen’s name is not there. If you go to poets.org, the website of the Academy of American Poets, you won’t find any mention of Andy Clausen. Andy is well-known in the poetry underground, but virtually unknown in the world at large.

The fact is Andy is too blue collar, too crude, too rough, too real to be recognized by the academics that decide which poets and writers are worthy of fame. Ginsberg was more educated, more erudite, more sophisticated, more worthy. It matters not that Ginsberg and other well-known beats praised Clausen’s work. Clausen is more like Bukowski, who went almost his entire life as a nobody as far as academia was concerned.

Now, because of this book, because of the stories Andy tells of his travels and adventures with Ginsberg and Corso, et al., I see Andy is starting to be recognized. I haven’t seen Andy for 40 years and up until a short time ago, I didn’t even know he was still alive. Now, I see he’s going to be doing a reading at the Las Vegas Clark County Library (Nov 8, 7 pm) and leading a discussion at Nevada State College in Henderson (Nov 8, 1 pm) and doing a writers workshop in Las Vegas (Nov 9, 2 pm, Winchester-Dondero Cultural Center).

If you’re in Las Vegas at this time, here’s a rare chance to see the last of the beat poets. If you live on the east coast, Andy lives in Woodstock and still reads frequently in the New York/New Jersey area. Watch for him in a neighborhood bar near you.

Anne Waldman said: “The poems soar and rage but ultimately reside in empathy . . . Clausen’s oeurvre is a reminder that poetry comes from the street and struggle.”

Gregory Corso said: “That’s why I’m reading with Andy. He’s coming to the fore after living it for years.”

Allen Ginsberg said: “I have long admired his writing; of all the poets younger than my own generation in the U.S.A., he has for a long time seemed the most penetrant and clear and inventive and free.”

Beat: A First-Hand Account of the Latter Days of the Beat Generation is illustrated with line drawings by Michael Wojczuk, who was also a poet in the Berkeley crowd back then. I didn’t even know Michael was also an artist, but his illustrations are perfect for this book. There are also numerous photos of Andy and various of the beat poets, plus reproductions of posters for poetry readings, mostly from the 1970s and 80s.

Any aficionado of the beat poets would love this book. Andy’s stories introduce you to these legendary literary mavericks in such a personal way that they become real and human, with all of their faults and foibles in addition to their unique worldviews, far beyond what can be gleaned from their poetry.

Ppb, 210 pages. You can purchase this book for $17.95 from Amazon.