Presumably named the “Beat generation” by Jack Kerouac, one of the Beat Poets, who wrote the novel On the Road. He was describing the “down-and-out status” of himself and his fellow poets. It was quickly becoming a slang term in America after World War II, meaning “exhausted” or “beat down” and provided this generation with a definitive label for their personal and social positions and perspectives.
- Common Domain, AP photograph 1965
- The movement was launched by Allen Ginsberg’s Howl:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. –Allen Ginsberg
It was so shocking that it became a cause célèbre because of its topics and profane language. By itself it had a profound effect on American arts and letters. It was the subject of a court case, received vast amounts of publicity, making the Beats household names. The reverberations of this type of poetry continue to this day. Rather than disappearing as a fad, it morphed and matured. The ideas were picked up by the hippies in the 60s although without the same intellectual force that was prevalent in the Beats. Interesting to note it was incorporated into The Beatles – who claimed they used that name as an homage to Buddy Holly and the Crickets, but clearly John, primarily, and Paul later, were influenced greatly by the Beat manifesto. There are many who say that the “beat goes on” today in performance poetry, poetry slams, and rap music.
*”The Beat fraternity, forged a decade before the world began to glamourize it, provided their entry into the world of writing. The intimate circle was both subject matter and audience – and, because autobiography was transformed into art, the fictional characters have lived on long after their prototypes died. This collective of characters, both fictional and real, exemplifies a pivotal paradigm in twentieth-century American literature: finding the highest spirituality among the marginal and the dispossessed, establishing the links between art and pathology, and seeking truth in visions, dreams, and other non-rational states.
“The Beats were not the first Americans to revolt against literary tradition, nor were they the first to entwine their lives and their art. Like their avant-garde forebears, who experimented in every arena from dress to drugs to politics to sex, the Beats conducted their lives in a state of countercultural experiment.” (*From “The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944-1960” by Steven Watson © 1995
- Found on: http://madamepickwickartblog.com
Outside City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco around 1970. Levi Asher: “The core group consisted of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs, who met in the neighborhood surrounding Columbia University in uptown Manhattan in the mid-40’s. They picked up Gregory Corso in Greenwich Village and found Herbert Huncke hanging around Times Square. They then migrated to San Francisco where they expanded their group consciousness by meeting Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. Most of them struggled for years to get published, and it is inspiring to learn how they managed to keep each other from giving up hope when it seemed their writings would never be understood. Their moment of fame began with a legendary poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco.
In the post-war generation in both the U.K. and United States, poets and artists reacted to the formalism of art and poetry. The Beats seem to have evolved in New York City and on the west coast in San Francisco. They included Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso who were protesting current politics and mainstream culture, they were interested in changing artistic consciousness and conventional writing. They were closely related to the Jazz Poets and the San Francisco Renaissance movement which included poets Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Duncan. The poets Charles Bukowski and William Carlos Williams seem to have influenced their choices. They looked at T.S. Eliot as being too nihilist and too formal. They turned away from that academic precision, creating from immediacy with their instincts and their passions.
In Modern American Poetry by Louis Untermeyer, 1958. he states, “The Holy Barbarians or Beats scorning the shibboleths of the day, erupted in poems which combined amorality, surrealism, hedonism, jazz, fragments of Zen philosophy, marijuana sessions, and casual obscenities, and a program of general irresponsibility. Their technique was derived from the blunt statements of William Carlos Williams and the kaleidoscopic effects of Ezra Pound, whose influence on contemporary American poetry had become as varied as it was pervasive. Their reaction against the apathy of the average citizen in a world bent upon self-destruction, their contempt for the compromises of respectability, and their rejection of organized society expressed in outcries.
“Such exacerbated poetry was only incidentally a revulsion from the romantic attitude. Primarily it was a revolt in which words were used as an act of revenge, a resentment directed against a conformist culture which the Beats felt had been arbitrarily imposed upon them. The Angry Young Men* who congregated in coffee houses and nightclubs declaiming their poetry to the beat of jazz instruments were sounding what Ginsberg called “mad mouthfuls of language” to register their exasperation.
“If their expostulations had a plethora of verbal violence and no reformist intent, if they wrote in a welter of fragments, it was because they were trying to reflect the welter itself, the shattering effect of a shaken society upon its people. Their subjects, and seemingly they themselves, were propelled by forces of which they were fearfully aware, forces that affected them with dread as much as loathing. …They gave themselves up to consuming hates and the distortions of a nightmare world.
[*”The “angry young men” were a group of mostly working and middle class British playwrights and novelists who became prominent in the 1950s. The group’s leading members included John Osborne and Kingsley Amis. The phrase was originally coined by the Royal Court Theatre’s press officer to promote John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger. The term, always imprecise, began to have less meaning over the years as the writers to whom it was originally applied became more divergent, and many of them dismissed the label as useless.] Wikipedia John Osborne and his play Look Back in Anger”
A lot of these poets and their poems are familiar to you and are included in text books and literary anthologies. Here are a few of the poets from the movement to give you an example of their poems:
Gregory Corso, only the second of the Beats to be published was a friend of Ferlinghetti and Kerouac. He was born in 1930 and lived until 2001. He had a long time to investigate poetry in his voice. “Corso’s vocabulary has been described as eclectic. He is said to be a poet who has a well refined knowledge of the classics, classical diction and form, as well as a poet who possesses a street wise sense. One critic called him “an urchin Shelly” (from The Beat Page)
I Held A Shelley Manuscript
My hands did numb to beauty
as they reached into Death and tightened!
O sovereign was my touch
upon the tan-inks’s fragile page!
Quickly, my eyes moved quickly,
sought for smell for dust for lace
for dry hair!
I would have taken the page
breathing in the crime!
For no evidence have I wrung from dreams–
yet what triumph is there in private credence?
Often, in some steep ancestral book,
when I find myself entangled with leopard-apples
and torched-skin mushrooms,
my cypressean skein outreaches the recorded age
and I, as though tipping a pitcher of milk,
pour secrecy upon the dying page. –Gregory Corso
In 1952, Lawrence Ferlinghetti became acquainted with Kenneth Rexroth who had already established himself as a notable West Coast writer, artist and political activist. After meeting Peter Martin, the publisher of City Lights magazine, the two planned to open a bookshop by the same name.
Still in business, the City Lights bookstore of San Francisco soon became a mecca for writers and artists, many of them well established in the field of contemporary literature.
A Vast Confusion
Long long I lay in the sands
Sounds of trains in the surf
in subways of the sea
And an even greater undersound
of a vast confusion in the universe
a rumbling and a roaring
as of some enormous creature turning
under sea and earth
a billion sotto voices murmuring
a vast muttering
a swelling stuttering
in ocean’s speakers
world’s voice-box heard with ear to sand
a shocked echoing
a shocking shouting
of all life’s voices lost in night
And the tape of it
someow running backwards now
through the Moog Synthesizer of time
back to the first
And the first light __Lawrence Ferlinghetti
And one of the few women in the movement, Diane di Prima:
I loved you in October
when you hid behind your hair
and rode your shadow
in the corners of the house
and in November you invaded
filling the air
above my bed with dreams
cries for some kind of help
on my inner ear
in December I held your hands
one afternoon; the light failed
it came back on
in a dawn on the Scottish coast
you singing us ashore
now it is January, you are fading
into your double
jewels on his cape, your shadow on the snow,
you slide away on wind, the crystal air
carries your new songs in snatches thru the windows
of our sad, high, pretty rooms __Diane di Prima
The works of the Beat Poets are freely available on the web. I used this site http://www.rooknet.net/beatpage/index.html for the above poems. It gives you a profile of many others plus a few of their poems. I would also like to recommend an excellent article by Josh Rahn called The Beat Generation which can be found here: http://www.rooknet.net/beatpage/index.html.
Beat poems have no set form. They are free verse influenced by blues, jazz, post-war angst, the feeling of being beat down by society (therefore a little rebellious) inspired by hallucinogenics (surreal) also influenced by meditation, Zen Buddhism, Native American and other ethnic tribal lore and folk stories. The challenge for this article is to take some of these elements and create your own beat poem, link with Mr. Linky, read and share your poems with others.