Beat Poets of Venice West

By Ann Arens (from research and personal experience by Grace Godlin)

Across the country, suburbs comprised of cookie cutter houses were proliferating and pent-up consumerism was running rampant after the end of WWII. It was the 1950s, the era of ultimate conformity. At the same time, small groups of poets, artists, and musicians were coming together in New York, San Francisco, and slightly later in Venice, California, with a lifestyle that flew in the face of these widely prevailing values. They were known collectively as the Beats or Beatniks, and when they came to national attention they were ridiculed and satirized for their bongo playing, excess of hair, spacey (“like wow man”) language, and confrontational poetry.

Los Angeles native, Grace Godlin, a 27-year resident of the Canal community, recently started a personal journey of re-discovery of the Venice Beats. Her playground growing up was Venice Beach. Later as a college student she visited The Gas House, a Venice coffee house that was a Beat hangout.

“When I was young I was attracted to the iconoclastic, going against the grain, because there wasn’t anything like that, and there was this pressure to conform in the ‘50s. And I did a good job of conforming. I was attracted by the sensation and the shock, the rebelliousness. The art I saw at The Gas House wasn’t what I was exposed to in Art 1A at UCLA.”

In spite of feelings of being an outsider, Grace was drawn to the exotic scene at the Gas House, which was located at Market Street and Ocean Front Walk. “It was a brick building. I remember it being dark and shadowy, and it seemed somewhat menacing to me. They would have poetry readings or literary discussions. There was a bathtub in the center of the room, and sometimes there would be people in the bathtub reading poetry. I remember bongos and the sandals and beards and the unconventional art all over the walls.”

Grace kept a low profile, just ordering her coffee and not lingering for long. “I wanted to be connected to this movement, but I thought it was too risky. I wish I could have shed all those inhibitions, but I didn’t. Yet I knew that I was drawn to these people because they were questioning and not accepting the status quo - something I didn’t have the courage to do myself.”

Her recent exploration has helped Grace flesh out her youthful impressions with more information about who these poets were and their place in literary history. “Now I’m looking at it with a more informed view thanks to all the writing that has been done about this period,” says Grace. “And it’s amusing, enlightening and absolutely fascinating.”

Looking beyond their eccentric facade, the poets and other artists of Venice West stood for a rejection of middle class life and materialistic values.

“It’s a shuck,” was a phrase they used to express their outlook.

“My interpretation of that phrase,” says Grace Godlin “is that they looked at the media, at the entertainment industry, at government as manipulative and exploitative. They were con games to those young poets and artists.”

Social critic Lawrence Lipton characterized them as ‘disaffiliated’. The anti-middle-class lifestyle they adapted was an extreme reaction to materialism. Lipton described it as ‘dedicated to poverty’.

Lawrence Lipton, a controversial character of the Venice West scene had written “who-done-it” novels in Chicago and then moved to Santa Monica to write film and radio scripts. Himself also a poet, Lipton moved to a cheaper address in Venice and gathered around him a group of young struggling poets and musicians.

The Sunday afternoon salons at his Craftsman house at 20 Park Avenue featured poetry and discussions about literature, jazz, and art that lasted into the evening and even ended up on the beach overnight. The salons would evolve into the Venice West poets.

Older and better educated than the young poets, Lipton saw himself as mentor to the group. At the same time, he was taping their conversations and preparing to write a book. “It was almost like Margaret Mead doing her studies of Samoa,” comments Grace.

Lipton felt the Venice West poets deserved to be recognized on the same level as the East Coast Beat poets, such as Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs, as well as San Francisco Beats Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. But the resulting book, The Holy Barbarians seemed to many to be more exploitation than serious study of the group and Lipton was regarded as a promoter and pontificator. A far better book, according to Grace, is Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California by John Arthur Maynard, which takes a critical look at Lawrence Lipton and focuses more on the poets themselves and what brought about the movement.

“You live your life,” says Grace “and your life IS your philosophy.”

“A lot of the writers didn’t seem to think very deeply about a lot of this,” she continues. “Maybe that was a part of the Beat attitude as well. It was for the moment, much more instinctive.”

And why did they end up in Venice? “The rents were cheap,” says Grace “and the area had a history of being tolerant about a lot of eccentricities. And also the climate, the beach. This was a poor person’s beach community. You could live here cheaply. So since so many of them wanted to dedicate themselves to their writing and their composing or painting, Venice allowed them an opportunity to do that without having to work eight hours a day at a conventional job.

Stuart Perkoff, a transplant from the Midwest, was the poet leader of the group. Other poets frequently mention his impact and his guidance. Perkoff established the Venice West Coffee House on Dudley as a hangout for artists and a way to make a modest living without actually working.

“He was able to do that for a while,” says Grace, “but you can only sell so much coffee.”

Ironically, the Beats, who turned their backs on such aspects of society as the mainstream media became its focus after the publication of The Holy Barbarians. In Venice West, John Arthur Maynard recalls a time when, from the vantage point of a walk street rooftop, a group of the Beat poets watch as a tour bus stops and a mass of tourists spreads out all over Speedway in search of Beatniks. “They thought their little artists’ paradise was being invaded, and they resented that,” says Grace.
Also alarmed by the unwanted notoriety, local “concerned citizens” and business interests joined forces to try to eliminate what they perceived as an unsavory element. They were able to get the police commission to investigate whether the Gas House had the proper entertainment licenses. Eventually, it was demolished in 1962.

“I want to honor these writers,” says Grace Godlin of the poets and artists of Venice West, who never achieved the recognition of their counterparts in New York and San Francisco. “They were struggling to find their voice in a time that was stultifying as far as pressures to conform. Whether or not they were great writers is for others to determine. I think the act of doing what they did is worth honoring. They contributed to the literary and cultural history of our city.”

Reprinted with permission from VOCAL, the Newsletter of Voice of the Canals (VOC), the resident association of the Venice Canal Community.

Posted: Sat - July 1, 2006 at 05:12 AM