The Beats Go On – Without Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen’s account of his meeting with Jack Kerouac has always impressed me not only because the scene described is pretty darn funny but also because Leonard’s self-assessment of his position on the periphery of the bohemian literary group rather than an integral participant is a paradigm played out in many and perhaps most of his professional and social relationships.
A parallel sense of being tolerated but not, as was Leonard’s longing, being accepted as an equal is embedded in these lines from the version of “A Thousand Kisses Deep” he has recited during the current World Tour:
I ran with Diz, I sang with Ray
I never had their sweep
but once or twice they let me play
a thousand kisses deep.
Recently, I shared the Cohen-Kerouac anecdote with a couple of knowledgeable Cohen fans; their interest in the incident and Leonard’s analysis of his own role among these writers convinced me to post the story.
This excerpt1 is taken from the discussion in Ira Nadel’s “Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen” of Cohen’s brief sojourn in 1956-1957 as a graduate student in literature at Columbia University. It was not a good fit. Nadel notes that Cohen “continued the casual study habits he had developed at McGill,” filling his notebooks with caricatures of his professors and fellow students.
Cohen lived at International House, the dormitory for foreign students located on Riverside Drive, close to the Hudson River. But he spent most of his time in the fledgling bohemian scene around the Columbia campus and downtown in the Village.
The Beats were emerging and Allen Ginsberg, a graduate of Columbia, had captured national attention with his famous reading of Howl in March 1955 at the Six Gallery in San Francisco (memorialized in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums).
Jack Kerouac, who himself had attended Columbia on a sports scholarship was also part of the Village scene. Cohen recalls hearing him read at the Village Vanguard and (with musical accompaniment) and later meeting him at Ginsberg’s apartment: “He was lying under a dining room table, pretending to listen to some jazz record while the party swirled on ’round him.”
Kerouac’s novel On the Road would appear to great acclaim in September 1957 from Viking, who would go on to publish The Favorite Game.
Cohen appreciated Kerouac’s work, calling him “a certain kind of genius who was able to spin it out that way like some great glistening spider.” What Kerouac was “really spinning was the great tale of America.”
Counterculture writing from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, and William S. Burroughs shaped a new world of literary recklessness.
In New York, Cohen found confirmation of his anti-establishment stance, although he was never accepted by the Beats. “I was always on the fringe. I liked the places they gathered, but I was never accepted by the bohemians because it was felt that I came from the wrong side of the tracks. I was too middle class. … I didn’t have the right credentials to be at the center table in those bohemian cafes.”2
Credit Due Department: By Kerouac_by_Palumbo.jpg: Tom Palumbo from New York, NY, USAderivative work: Sir Richardson at en.wikipedia – This file was derived from Kerouac by Palumbo.jpg: , CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18834407
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Oct 6, 2010 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric.
- The excerpt is one continuous paragraph in Nadel’s book. I have formatted it as several sections for the reader’s convenience. Otherwise, the excerpt is reproduced here as it was printed in “Various Positions.” [↩]
- Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen by Ira Bruce Nadel, 2007, University of Texas Press. P 52. [↩]