Poetics: Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation

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Picture courtesy: Woman in black by Artem Gavrysh, Unsplash

“There is not beat poetry, or a beat novel, or beat painting. Beat is a poetic conception, an attitude toward the world.” – Allen Ginsberg

Hello dVerse Poets!

Sanaa here (aka adashofsunny) to stir your muse once again. The month of October has always been symbolic for me, be it in terms of personal fulfillment or the fact that it’s Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere.

As though nature’s editor has taken a shift change, as if a poet who adores greens has taken rest to focus on earthen hues instead. Today, we will be discussing Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation.

The Beat Generation was a literary movement that began after the Second World War and is known for its liberal attitude towards life.

It was a movement that concentrated on re-thinking the way that writers regarded contemporary culture, the past and the future. And so, the writing that came from this generation explored the ‘human condition.’ This meant writing openly about darker subjects.

The Beat Generation was discussed earlier by Beth Winter in Pretzels & Bullfights in detail which you can find and read here. I highly recommend that you do.

AT TOWER PEAK by Gary Snyder

Every tan rolling meadow will turn into housing
Freeways are clogged all day
Academies packed with scholars writing papers
City people lean and dark
This land most real
As its western-tending golden slopes
And bird-entangled central valley swamps
Sea-lion, urchin coasts
Southerly salmon-probes
Into the aromatic almost-Mexican hills
Along a range of granite peaks
The names forgotten,
An eastward running river that ends out in desert
The chipping ground-squirrels in the tumbled blocks
The gloss of glacier ghost on slab
Where we wake refreshed from ten hours sleep
After a long day’s walking
Packing burdens to the snow
Wake to the same old world of no names,
No things, new as ever, rock and water,
Cool dawn birdcalls, high jet contrails.
A day or two or million, breathing
A few steps back from what goes down
In the current realm.
A kind of ice age, spreading, filling valleys
Shaving soils, paving fields, you can walk in it
Live in it, drive through it then
It melts away
For whatever sprouts
After the age of frozen hearts.
Flesh-carved rock and gusts on the summit,
Smoke from forest fires is white,
The haze above the distant valley like a dusk.
It’s just one world, this spine of rock and streams
And snow, and the wash of gravels, silts
Sands, bunchgrasses, saltbrush, bee-fields,
Twenty million human people, downstream, here below.

The most important writers of this time period were Herbert Huncke, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Lucien Carr.

The phrase “Beat Generation” was invented by Jack Kerouac in 1948 with the initial connotation of weary as in tired of the status quo, but also incorporating a musical meaning from the relationship with jazz and further evolving into meaning beatific as spirituality was embraced.

The Beat poets sought to write in an authentic and unfettered style. “First thought, best thought” was how central Beat poet Allen Ginsberg described their method of spontaneous writing. They took inspiration from jazz musicians, surrealists, metaphysical poets, visionary poets such as William Blake, and haiku and Zen poetry.

Which brought me to question, exactly what kind of poetry would transpire if we at dVerse employ this style of writing?

“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg 

‘Howl’ is without a doubt Ginsberg’s best-known poem. It’s also known as ‘Howl for Carl Solomon,’ and was published in 1956 in Howl and Other Poems. It was described as “a lament for the Lamb in American with instances of remarkable lamb-like youths.” Ginsberg wanted the poem to express the pent-up frustrations of his generation and the artistic possibilities. Here is an excerpt from the poem.

Who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine
in Paradise Alley, death,
or purgatoried their torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol
and cock and endless balls,
incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud
and lightning in the mind leaping
toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating
all the motionless world of Time between,

Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery
dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops,
storefront boroughs of teahead joyride,
neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon
and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn,
ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,
who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride
from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine
until the noise of wheels and children brought them down
shuddering mouth-wracked
and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance
in the drear light of Zoo,
who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s floated out
and sat through the stale beer afternoon
in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom
on the hydrogen jukebox…

(Read full poem here)

In “Howl,” Ginsberg sought to draw inspiration from the epic, free verse style of 19th-century poet Walt Whitman. Both of them wrote passionately about the promise and betrayal of the American democracy, the central importance of erotic experience, and the spiritual quest for the truth of everyday existence.

And it’s relevant, when we come to think of it, aren’t we as poets fueled by the desire to lament, to protest, and to write freely about things?

Sources: City Hermit: The Style of Allen Ginsberg and The Beat Generation: explanation, examples and origin.

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Picture courtesy: Shot of a woman looking up by Garin Chadwick, Unsplash

Speaking of Beat Generation and musical meaning from the relationship with jazz, here is a forgotten treasure “Scenes in the City,” by Charles Mingus.

Scenes in the City by Charles Mingus

Well, here I am right back where I was yesterday
And the day before, and the day before that
Sitting on a high barstool
Holding my dreams up to the sound of Jazz music
I live uptown, where? I don’t exactly know
I’m always downtown
And it seems I’m always with the blues
I talk to myself in public places and hum jazz tunes
I love Jazz
But soon I have to make it uptown
To that old furnished room of mine
I guess that’s why I stall so long downtown
But I like the Cafe bars down here

Especially the ones across the street from theaters
I once wanted to be on the stage
But this is the closest I’ll ever get to one
I couldn’t afford a seat next to the ceiling
That was Jazz music you heard blastin out
Now I got fifteen cents between me and starvation
I’ll prolly hafta walk all the way uptown
Cause I’m playin that music again.

Listen to the full song below:

For Today’s Poetics, I want you all to write in the style of the Beat Generation. Pour out the first thought, the first thing that comes to mind and let the words take you forward.

Feel free to write about darker (more under-rated) subjects. The aim here is to explore the “human condition,” and to write spontaneously. Shall we?

New to dVerse? Here’s how to join in:

  • Write a poem in response to the challenge.
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