First Thought, Best Thought?

It could be argued that immediacy was the style of the Beats. Certainly it was Ginsbergs’, and Kerouac professed to be driven by “Spontaneous Prose.” In the years following World War II improvisation and free-flowing first thought were integral to art. Jackson Pollack, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie… It wasn’t just the Beats. These artists were screaming in the face of a crushing conformity, and it was their apparent spontaneous creations that inspired the freedom of thought that characterized subsequent generations, movements and scenes.

Ginsberg was inspired by Williams and Pound – poets whose voices broke free of expectation and conventional thought. Williams in particular helped Ginsberg break free of his father’s rigid and structured approach to poetry, suggesting that he found his own voice instead of echoing that of the past. He said that structure was confining – that it was better to leave a poem incomplete than complete it with unnecessary words. His interest in Buddhism and meditation taught him that poetry does not necessarily come from the mind. It is not the eschewing of ideas as much as the true voice of the body. Too much thinking could hinder the true meaning. Even in his interviews there is a sense that nothing is given too much thought; Ginsberg appears to pour his soul into his speech, in a decidedly natural rhythm.

Kerouac, though, is perhaps better known for spontaneity, if only because his approach to the novel was more unique than Ginsbergs’ to the poem. Kerouac, of course, wrote On the Road in one epic writing session, on one piece of paper, just writing what came into his head… In his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” he explained that his writing aimed to maintain the “purity of speech.” He claimed that punctuation only hindered the process, and that pausing and thinking were also detrimental.

In an interview with the Paris Review in 1965, Ginsberg said of Kerouac:

“I think he went further into the existential thing of writing conceived of as an irreversible action or statement, that’s unrevisable and unchangeable once it’s made. I remember I was thinking, yesterday in fact, there was a time that I was absolutely astounded because Kerouac told me that in the future literature would consist of what people actually wrote rather than what they tried to deceive other people into thinking they wrote, when they revised it later on. And I saw opening up this whole universe where people wouldn’t be able to lie anymore! They wouldn’t be able to correct themselves any longer. They wouldn’t be able to hide what they said. And he was willing to go all the way into that, the first pilgrim into that newfound land.”

One could be forgiven for thinking William S. Burroughs falls into this category, too. His cut-up works appear, to many, as random, confusing screeds aimed at uncovering a natural language or implicit meaning that a carefully formed text could not impart. The uninformed opinion declares that he wrote a story, cut it up, then randomly pasted it together and that was that. In fact, Burroughs’ cut-up method required incredible efforts in editing, and it was his friends, Ginsberg and Kerouac, who helped him in the monumental task of making his classic Naked Lunch remotely comprehensible.


Yet, how accurate are these descriptions? Certainly they are accurate to what the Beats professed. However, Kerouac especially seemed more interested in the illusion of spontaneity. One can’t deny his writing came from his gut and was written in a certain fashion designed to bypass tradition and the trappings of over-thinking, but he knew better than that. On the Road may have been blurted out onto paper in one epic session that helped change literature… but it was still subject to years of editing. Its conception may have been immaculate, but it was brought to maturity in decidedly traditional fashion.

The same could be said about Ginsberg. He also practiced spontaneous prose. His poetry was the product of his soul, yet it, too, was carefully prepared. In his “Fourteen Steps for Revising Poetry,” Ginsberg describes the process of developing an idea into a full poem. There are fourteen clearly defined steps, and only the first is the idea, and the second writing. Twelve of the fourteen steps are revisions and edits. For example, number six on his list:

“Check out all articles & prepositions: are they necessary and functional?”

(You can listen to his lecture here.)


So what do you think? Is first thought truly the best thought? Does editing bring something extra, or does it diminish the aim? Are there writers who truly stick to the principals of “Spontaneous Prose”?

David S. Wills

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David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. He travels a lot and currently lectures in China. He also runs an ESL website. You can read more about and by David at his blog, or on Tumblr.

9 responses to First Thought, Best Thought?

  1. In my opinion, all Editors are evil, bottom feeding low-lifes who need to be neutered and sent to the furthest corners of the land!

  2. What a great read! I didnt realize Ginsburg was such a stickler for editing!

  3. editors can’t find the corners because they can’t read the signs.

    if writing is non-spontaneous, then it is labored, right? if you have to follow rules or fit within confines of certain editorial criteria, then you need to follow formula. it becomes technical writing as opposed to artform. if you want to evoke something in the reader, a feeling, you have to feel it, too, and then it should just flow. some people read such crap so i guess you can write and not feel a thing and sell a million copies but is it good? check out publishers weekly for the best selling fiction authors. its terrible. i worked for five bookstores and a library and saw what people read. the formulated pap is what moves, really. but thats what they are used to…in the usa here, at least…most people know who dan brown is but don’t know who cormac mccarthy is.

    feck, should i go back and edit that post?

    • I’m not sure old Ginsy would agree with that assessment. Yes, it is a problem if you’re trying to bend to fit in with editorial guidelines or stick to a rigid formula, but I think the point is that if you let the inspiration hit you, run with it, and then use that bit of spontaneity to create art… then after that the editing part is merely a matter of improvement. In other words, there’s no point crowbarring meaning into a poetic form, but if you write a poem it’s best to edit it to perfection afterwards.

      I’m not sure what he thought about editors. He certainly believed in his own power because he thought he could adequately edit his own work.

  4. Hi guys. I did a piece of radioprose once. Even got it broadcasted at BBC. Comments?

    • where can i submit my alpticapion for designated twitter-er’ on the road? think of all the people we could alienate on a minute by minute basis twitter-er’? i usually get called must worse than that it starts with tw , dig?anyway, i’m getting used to this new look here on the PC blog change is hard for me say, have you guys heard this neutral milk hotel record, in the aeroplane over the sea’ i finally got to it over the weekend mindboggling stuff VERY compelling i couldn’t stop listening to it from start to finish over and over when’s the last time that happened? what a beautiful and strange record i swear i heard PC mention this once but maybe not when i was young i was the king of carrot flowers,ackles

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