An Introduction to the Beat Poets

The Beat poets were a group of friends living in New York City in the decade following World War II who, through their collaborations, experiments with poetry rhythms, and questioning of the status quo, forever altered the relationship of poetry to popular culture. The peak of their influence was during the late 1940s through the early 1960s, when their thematic explorations of sexuality and social class ushered in the hippie movement. Building on the freeverse, stream-of-consciousness, and collage styles explored by many modernist poets (see MODERNISM), the Beats integrated rhythms found in jazz clubs with invocations of Eastern religions and Buddhist chants. They differed from the poets of the Imagist School by focusing on the immediacy of experience, as opposed to the precision of images. By representing and embracing the contradictions of contemporary lives on the fringe, they created an especially active and accessible poetry. Today the influence of the Beats is still felt in popular culture, through the popularity of coffee houses, poetry slams, and spoken word poetry.

The term beat was coined during a 1948 discussion between writers Jack Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes about the weariness and alienation or, as Kerouac was to put it, the “beatness” of their generation. Holmes used the term twice in 1952: in a fictionalized biography called Go and in a New York Times Magazine article, “The Beat Generation” (Watson 3). The name caught on, making the term beatnik synonymous with an intellectual form of youth rebellion. Before long, the concept of “beat” was commodified by popular culture, inspiring Beatlike characters on film and television shows, such as on the sitcom Dobie Gillis. Media of the 1950s and 1960s were filled with images of the finger-snapping, turtleneck-wearing, goateed archetypal Beat, bearing little resemblance to the actual poets most closely associated with the movement.

A decade before the Beatnik fad began, a small network of outcast students, graduates, and dropouts from Columbia University’s English department hunkered down in New York cafés, challenging and encouraging each other to take their own writing in new and surprising directions. Inspired by such poets as Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, the Beats emphasized freethinking and spontaneous writing. Like their Black Mountain School counterparts, they celebrated the theme of individual experience and perception, and they saw their very lives as the active impetus by which poems were made.


The writers most central to the movement were Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs. Their cohorts and muses came to include, over the years, Herbert Huncke, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, LeRoi Jones (later to be known as Amiri Baraka), Diane Di Prima, Carl Solomon, Peter Orvolosky, Carolyn Cassady, Michael Mcclure, and Lucien Carr. Many other writers were part of the larger Beat constellation, embracing the political and subversive possibilities of poetry and helping shape the rebelyouth culture that still resonates powerfully today.

The friendships among the Beat writers are as famous and enthusiastically chronicled as their actual creative output. During the late 1940s, the Beats often lived together in crowded New York apartments, worked together, and hit the road together to reveal in their writing the “real” America and Mexico. Through their associations, they tested their own spiritual, physical, and sexual boundaries, challenging the limits of their experience. There was a complex web of brotherhood, sexual desire, and emotional tumult.

Their transformative relationships were openly represented in poems and novels, usually with clever yet transparent aliases. And with their shared adventures as both content and context for their writing, they encouraged and critiqued each other. As Kerouac writes of Ginsberg and Cassady in On the Road, a novel that openly chronicles and fictionalizes their relationships: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars . . . !” (8). Cassady, whom Ginsberg refers to in HOWL as the “Adonis of Denver,” was of particular personal and metaphoric interest for both him and Kerouac. Cassady’s swagger, restlessness, and insatiable sexual drive personified the energy of the archetypal West, and he became muse as much as friend.

Drug use abounded, since the Beats saw it as a tool for mind-expansion and the heightening of the senses, perceptions that could then be applied to creative work. Another venue of inspiration was the be-bop jazz scene in Harlem, the echoes of which can be heard in the twists and turns of their verse and prose rhythms. For a time Kerouac called his spontaneous style “blowing,” referring to a be-bop jazz player riffing off a melody with a horn.

The Beats increasingly took a holistic view of writing, questioning the validity of “high” art and rejecting the literary New Critical notion of “art for art’s sake”. Familiar with the literary canon through their studies at Columbia University, the group aimed to reclaim poetry from the ivory tower and place it squarely in jazz clubs, alleyways, and bedrooms. In this vein, their themes challenged the false sheen of American patriotism, a holdover from World War II’s war effort. The resulting proliferation of nuclear weapons, the onset of the cold war, and increasing racial tensions further contradicted America’s wholesome image. By exposing the disingenuous use of propaganda, they offered one of the strongest modern-day critiques of America as spiritually bereft and bloated by consumerism. The Beats lived their beliefs by existing hand-to-mouth and befriending criminals, prostitutes, and others who lived on the margins of society. Interestingly, through their immersion into the sordid parts of American life, Beat poetry emerged as largely affirmative of human nature. Throughout their work, the creative process is celebrated, as is the integrity of those who push societal boundaries, foster a spiritual vision, or choose to be different.

Characteristics of Beat poetry include what Cassady called “a continuous flow of undisciplined thought” (Watson 139). Spontaneity as a technique was valued, as was a probing and honest inventory of all of the senses. As Steven Watson writes of Kerouac, the Beats “tried to convey, uncensored, [their] field of perception at the moment of composition,” closing the gap between lived experience and the written word (138). Ginsberg, a master of spontaneity, took on the Beat approach later than his comrades, reflecting his ongoing formal studies at Columbia. Both Kerouac and Williams encouraged Ginsberg to let go of verse forms and develop a style of “word sketching.” Sharing characteristics with imagist poetry and his idol Whitman, Ginsberg began to pull details from his journals, arranging them in a catalogue style, as is most vividly experienced in Howl. Opening it with the line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked,” Ginsberg creates a mosaic of sharpened images from his experiences with the Beat circle and of his brilliant but troubled mother, Naomi.

In Corso’s “Bomb” (1958), published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s influential City Lights Books as a pullout centerfold in the shape of a mushroom cloud, the mosaic style is used to create a poem on the threat of nuclear war that is not polemic, but aesthetically spectacular. Through this technique, Corso’s poem aims to render the bomb insignificant by its own richness. Another technique of Corso’s is the interplay of voices within the poem. In “Marriage” (1959), Corso asks: “Should I get married? Should I be good?” He answers himself rhetorically by proposing to “astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood.” He proceeds to propose both conventional and unconventional means of courtship, generally leading toward the unconventional. Similarly, his prose poem, “Variations on a Generation” (1959), is a mock interview between the press and the Beat poets. By structuring his poems as an internal or external dialogue, Corso creates a tension between monolithic societal norms and the creativity of the individual mind.

In contrast to Ginsberg and Corso is the comparatively spare writing of Snyder, who is seen as the Beatnik Henry David Thoreau, just as Ginsberg is seen as the Beatnik Whitman. Feeling that symbol and metaphor serve as a distancing device, Synder crafts poems that offer a clear vision of the poet in nature. As the Beatnik most versed in Buddhism and environmentalism, he was the inspiration for Kerouac’s novel Dharma Bums (1958). And like Ginsberg, Snyder became an icon and activist in the 1960s and eventually a respected college professor.

Despite a largely progressive view on society, the Beat writers were largely antifeminist. With the exception of di Prima, very few women involved in the circle were not girlfriends or wives, and even girlfriends and wives were on the periphery of a sphere devoted to male bonding. Moreover, much of the writing conveyed an underlying misogyny that di Prima challenges in poems such as “The Practice of Magical Evolution” (1958), an ironic response to Snyder’s “Praise for Sick Women” (1957). In addition to being male, most members of the group were white, proving to be a limiting landscape for poet, playwright, and black activist Jones (Baraka). Although they had friendships with the core Beat group, di Prima and Jones evolved in directions that the other Beats did not, compelled by their own life experiences and political views. It is noteworthy that Jones and his former wife Hettie Cohen’s Totem Press published di Prima’s first poetry collection, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward (1958). Through 1961–63, both di Prima and Jones edited the poetry newsletter, the Floating Bear. Other journals that were important for the Beats and helped them reach an audience were City Lights Books, Neurotica, Origin Press, Poets Press, Capra Press, and the Harvard Advocate.

A pivotal moment in Beat history was the meeting of East Coast and West Coast Beats during Ginsberg’s time in San Francisco. On October 13, 1955, Ginsberg, along with Snyder, McClure, Philip Whalen, and Philip Lamantia, organized a reading at Six Gallery. It is here that Ginsberg introduced the world to Howl and secured the opportunity to publish with Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books. Thus began the San Francisco Renaissance, an important movement in modern American poetry.

Although the Beats began their association in 1943, it was not until after the Six Gallery reading that the group gained national prominence. Howl became inadvertently infamous due to a lawsuit over its 1956 publication. Publisher Ferlinghetti and bookstore manager Shigeyoshi Murao were charged with obscenity but were defended broadly by the literary community. National attention was given to the trial, which eventually proved a victory for First Amendment rights, as Ferlinghetti and Murao were acquitted. During the year of the trial, Kerouac’s novel On the Road (1957) hit the bookstores, prompting both controversy and acclaim. Through these events, the Beats rapidly gained national recognition.

Ironically, as the idea of the “Beat generation” took root in the public imagination, spawning various fashion and music fads, the small circle to whom the term referred began to disperse. Ginsberg and Snyder became involved with the hippie movement; Kerouac became increasingly reclusive; Baraka became a lead artist within the Black Nationalist movement; di Prima focused on holistic medicines and cofounded The New Poets Theater; and Burroughs traveled to Tangiers after accidentally killing his wife and soon underwent his own censorship trial involving his novel Naked Lunch (1959).

Analysis of William S. Burroughs’s Novels

Some of the Beats burned so brightly and so intensely that they burned themselves out by middle age. Cassady died in Mexico from sun exposure and congestion shortly before his 42nd birthday. On October 1, 1969, less than a year after Cassady’s death, Kerouac died of an alcohol-related illness at the age of 46. In contrast, both Burroughs and Ginsberg died in 1997. Burroughs had delved ever deeper into his reclusive persona and paranoia, an active drug user until the end. Ginsberg, however, partook not only of the hippie movement of the 1960s, but he was celebrated by the punk movement in the 1970s and remained an active poet, Buddhist, and gay rights activist until the end, ultimately, as a world-renowned figure. The Beats endure, much as Ginsberg predicted in Howl, “with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their bodies good to eat a thousand years.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY Charters, Ann. The Portable Beat Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.
Foster, Edward Halsey. Understanding the Beats. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. Reprint, New York: Penguin, 1991.
Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944–1960. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.

Categories: Literary Terms and Techniques, Literature

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