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5. Masculine Heroes   

15. Poetry of Liberation

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Activities: Context Activities

The Beat Generation: Living (and Writing) on the Edge

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Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac & Peter Lafcadio, Mexico City

[5681] Anonymous, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac & Peter Lafcadio, Mexico City (n.d.), courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg Trust.
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"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 . . ."
When Allen Ginsberg performed these first lines of Howl in the crowded Six Gallery in San Francisco, the 150 people in the audience began cheering. As Kenneth Rexroth remembers, Americans were feeling oppressed by what he called "an undeclared military state," a government that seemed out of control, and a culture that seemed more interested in mass consumerism than morals or aesthetics. Ginsberg's voice immediately became a voice of hope and change. Poet Michael McClure describes the immediate visceral response to Howl: "Everyone knew at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power-support bases." By the time Ginsberg reached the end of Howl, the cheers were so loud that it was difficult to hear him read, but when he had finished, history had been made. The Beat movement had become an officially recognized force in the literary and cultural landscape.

The Beat Generation, as it came to be called, claims a number of well-known writers, including Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the founder of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. The Beat authors covered in this unit include Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Amiri Baraka (Baraka dropped his allegiance to the Beats as he began to emphasize the African American roots of his poetic voice). These writers looked to unconventional role models, or "Secret Heroes" as Ginsberg labeled them, like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Arthur Rimbaud, and Dylan Thomas. What all these earlier artists shared was noncanonical status, experimental artistic style, and a fast-paced, unorthodox lifestyle. The word "beat" was a slang term used by postwar jazz musicians to mean down and out, or poor and exhausted. It also suggested "dead beat" or "beat-up." The adoption of the word "beat" to describe this generation of poets is generally credited to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who claimed that the word meant "exhausted, at the bottom of the world, looking up or out, sleepless, wide-eyed, perceptive, rejected by society, on your own, streetwise." Kerouac later credited the term with a philosophical dimension, meaning beatitude or beatific. Proclaiming themselves the Beat Generation ironically helped these writers gain a sense of identity as outsiders. Although Ginsberg, Kerouac, and other early members of the group met in New York City, San Francisco eventually became the hub of the Beat movement. San Francisco, even more than New York City, was home to a thriving alternative culture, where radical ideas and lifestyles were welcomed.

When Ginsberg's Howl was eventually published in a collection, a court trial over its alleged obscenity only heightened its popularity, and the publicity it generated along with the publication of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957) brought word of the movement into the American heartland. The Beat Generation became synonymous with counterculture, rebellion, and bohemian living. These writers refused to conform to traditional middle-class values; they rejected materialism and organized religion, and searched instead for alternative ways to find spiritual understanding. The Beats looked to Eastern religion, with its emphasis on meditation and communion with nature. Some of them experimented with mind-altering drugs. Many of the Beat poets were openly homosexual, and their candor on the taboo subject of same-sex relationships helped pave the way for the gay rights movement in the 1970s.

Beat literature is characterized by a vigorous rejection of traditional social, sexual, political, and religious values. Although much writing of the time could be described as experimental, Beat writing shares a set of recognizable features, including spontaneity, a penchant for surreal imagery, juxtaposition, long lines, aggressive individualism, an interest in the writing process, the practice of automatic writing, a fascination with drug-induced states, and a general interest in life on the edges of society.

  1. Comprehension: What are some of the features that characterize Beat poetry?

  2. Comprehension: What kinds of values did the Beat Generation uphold?

  3. Context: Ginsberg's poem Howl is often taken as a kind of manifesto for the movement. What features, formal and thematic, seem to characterize both this poem and the Beat movement as a whole?

  4. Context: What does Baraka's poetry share with the Beat movement? How does race complicate his association with this group?

  5. Context: How does Snyder's attitude toward nature fit in with the Beat Generation's outlook?

  6. Exploration: William Carlos Williams was an American modernist poet known for celebrating everyday American speech and writing poems about ordinary subjects. In some ways, his compressed verse seems antithetical to the fluid, lengthy lines typical of much Beat poetry. However, Williams was an early admirer of Ginsberg's poetry. What might Williams have found attractive about this younger man's work?

  7. Exploration: Beat writers express a strong connection to physical places and locations. America's cities and landscapes are often crucial to their work. How do these writers treat physical space? You might consider looking at Allen Ginsberg's Howl, Gary Snyder's "August on Sourdough, A Visit from Dick Brewer," and Amiri Baraka's Dutchman. With what aspects of America do these writers identify? Why is traveling so important to these poets?

[5681] Anonymous, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac & Peter Lafcadio, Mexico City (n.d.),
courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg Trust.
The Beat Movement arose at the height of 1950s conservatism and eventually gave birth to the more broad-based counterculture movements of the 1960s. The Beats looked to non-traditional role models like jazz artists Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud.

[5683] John Doss, Allen Ginsberg at Madame Nhu Protest, 1963 (1963),
courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg Trust and the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
Allen Ginsberg is pictured here in front of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, after the anti-Madame Nhu demonstration of 1963. Madame Nhu, wife of the head of the secret police in Vietnam, was the official hostess of the U.S.-controlled South Vietnamese government. When a Buddhist monk immolated himself in Saigon as a protest against the government's favoritism of Catholicism (the majority of South Vietnamese were Buddhist), Madame Nhu called the suicide a "barbecue" and offered to light the match for the next one. When she came to the University of California, Berkeley, campus in 1963, she was met with a wide variety of protests.

[6254] Anonymous, Ginsberg with Hal Chase, Jack Kerouac & William Burroughs (c. 1944),
courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg Trust.
Photograph taken near Columbia University, where many Beat poets and writers were students. Beat writers expressed their disenchantment with American conformity.

[6505] Anonymous, The Howl Trial, San Francisco Municipal Court, 1957 (1957),
courtesy of City Lights Books.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, arrested for publishing Ginsberg's poem, comments on the Howl obscenity trial: "The prosecution put only two 'expert witnesses' on the stand--both very lame samples of academia--one from the Catholic University of San Francisco and one a private elocution teacher, a beautiful woman, who said, 'You feel like you are going through the gutter when you have to read that stuff. I didn't linger on it too long, I assure you.' The University of San Francisco instructor said: 'The literary value of the poem is negligible. . . . This poem is apparently dedicated to a long-dead movement, Dadaism, and some late followers of Dadaism. And, therefore, the opportunity is long past for any significant literary contribution of this poem."

[7537] Anonymous, Allen Ginsberg Uncensored Poetry Reading in Washington Square Park (1966),
courtesy of the Associated Press AP.
Allen Ginsberg was born in New Jersey in 1926 and attended Columbia University; while a student, he was greatly influenced by William Burroughs.

[8911] Michael Bibby, Interview: American Passages: Poetry of Liberation (2003),
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media.
Professor Michael Bibby discusses Ginsberg's attitude toward the government and society.

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