Beat Poets Analysis


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The label “beat” designates a group of writers and their friends and affiliates who met at Columbia University in New York and gained fame and notoriety in the period between 1944 and 1961 as the Beat generation. The meaning and origin of the word “beat” are subject to some debate, and explanations range from “downtrodden” and “weary of the world” to “beatific” and “angelic.” However, there is general agreement that Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) first used the term in 1948 to characterize himself and a small group of friends: Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), William Burroughs (1914-1997), Neal Cassady (1926-1968), and Herbert Huncke (1915-1996), with Cassady and Huncke serving mainly as early literary models and muses for their writer friends. A little later, Gregory Corso (1930-2001) joined them. Closely associated with this pioneering group were Lucien Carr (1925-2005), who introduced Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs to one another, and John Clellon Holmes (1926-1998), whose novel Go (1952) is the first semifactual chronicle of the early life of the Beats.

The name “Beat generation” was designed not only to signify the downtrodden, renegade position the young men were proud to hold in an increasingly conformist, status-conscious, and materialistic society but also to hint at their affinity to the lost generation, a similarly disaffected group of American writers in the period after World War I. Like many artists and intellectuals of their time, the early Beat poets were disillusioned because the end of Word War II had not led to a spiritual and cultural reawakening. On the contrary, the...

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Literary antecedents

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Despite their carefully cultivated image as “holy barbarians,” the Beat poets were well read, and their work is full of intertextual references to past and contemporary writers whom they saw as their literary ancestors. Most of those mentioned are writers who saw themselves as being in conflict with their mainstream cultures. Of particular importance to the Beat poets were the British Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and especially William Blake (1757-1827), whom Ginsberg claims to have seen and heard in hallucinatory visions in 1948 and whom he considered a powerful influence on his early poetry. Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” surely served as an inspiration for Ginsberg’s figure of Moloch in his masterpiece “Howl” (1955). The works of American Romantic poet Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), with their anticonformist, antitechnological message, were among the favorite books of many Beat poets, and the free-verse prophetic poetry of Walt Whitman (1819-1892) clearly inspired Ginsberg’s best poems, including “Howl.”

Beat poetry also contains frequent references to the French Symbolist poets. Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), in particular, fascinated many of them with his wild Bacchantic poetry and his dissolute lifestyle, including his homosexuality, which frightened the bourgeoisie of his time.

Closer to their own era, Dadaism and Surrealism directly influenced the works of the Beat poets, since a number of them had direct contact with Dadaist and Surrealist poets. Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (born 1919) translated their poetry; Ginsberg and Corso are said to have met Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), and Ginsberg allegedly kissed Duchamp’s shoe at the occasion. What attracted the Beats to all of these earlier poets was their flouting of social and literary convention, as well their shocking the timid and conventional bourgeoisie with their abrasive and often vulgar attacks on middle-class morality.

The Beat moves west

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

During the formative years of the Beat poets, roughly between 1945 and 1955, the literary establishment took no notice of them at all. Only Kerouac and Holmes managed to publish substantial works (The Town and the City, 1950, and Go, respectively), while Corso languished in jail and Burroughs moved first to Texas and from there to Algiers and Mexico, writing novels that would be published much later. During these years, the original New York Beat poets were discussing and exchanging books while traveling across the United States and abroad, gathering material for their future publications, and exchanging their works-in-progress in manuscript form and debating their merit heatedly in coffeehouses and jazz clubs. While the Beat poets toiled in almost complete obscurity during these years, nearly all the works that brought them fame and notoriety were completed before 1956, including Kerouac’s novels On the Road (1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), Visions of Cody (1960, 1972), and The Subterraneans (1958), as well as his long, epic poem, Mexico City Blues (1959). During the same period, Ginsberg attracted the attention of the poet Williams. He sent some of his poems to Williams, who became Ginsberg’s mentor. Despite all this creative activity, none of the New York Beat poets managed to break into the very exclusive and snobbish New York literary establishment, firmly controlled by the academic formalist...

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From anonymity to fame

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The breakthrough for the Beat poets that eventually catapulted them to national fame occurred on October 7, 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco at a poetry reading that has become an integral part of the Beat legend. The reading was suggested by McClure to Ginsberg, who at first refused, claiming that he had nothing to contribute; he changed his mind after composing the first part of “Howl.” The participants in the reading represent an interesting cross-section of all the elements of Beat literature. Rexroth, the elder statesman of the first poetry renaissance, was the moderator and introduced the poets. His friend and cohort, Philip Lamantia (1927-2005), read not his own surrealistic poems but the work of a recently deceased friend, and three members of the younger West Coast generation read poems that illustrated their ecological and mystical contribution to Beat literature. McClure recited “Point Lobos Animism” and “For the Death of One Hundred Whales,” both of which have been frequently anthologized; Snyder read “A Berry Feast”; and Whalen recited “Plus Ça Change.” Also present was an increasingly intoxicated Kerouac, who refused to read his own work but cheered the other poets on; he recounts the event in his novel The Dharma Bums.

The crowning point of the evening, however, was Ginsberg’s first reading of “Howl,” which produced a sensation and almost single-handedly catapulted the Beat poets to fame....

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The golden age

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

News of the events at the Six Gallery reading quickly reached the East Coast, despite the fact that “Howl” did not appear in print until a year later. For the first time, the Eastern establishment showed some interest in the West Coast poets, and The New York Times sent Richard Eberhart, an establishment poet and academic, to write a report on the San Francisco Renaissance. In “West Coast Rhythms,” published in The New York Times Book Review (September 2, 1956), Eberhart noted that with regard to the Beat poets, “Ambiguity is despised, irony is considered weakness, the poem as a system of connotations is thrown out in favor of long-line denotative statements.Rhyme is outlawed. Whitman is the only god worthy of emulation.” About Ginsberg, he wrote: The most remarkable poem of the young group is “Howl”a howl against everything in our mechanistic civilization which kills the spirit.It is Biblical in its repetitive grammatical build-up.It lays bare the nerves of suffering and spiritual struggle. Its positive force and energy come from a redemptive quality of love, although it destructively catalogues evils of our time from physical deprivation to madness.

While this was a considerable step forward, most Eastern reviewers and critics remained scathing in their condemnation of the West Coast “barbarians.” What really attracted the attention of the public to the Beat poets was a series of highly publicized obscenity trials, most notably the one involving Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1957. The judge’s decision that “Howl,” despite many objectionable passages, was not...

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The beginning of the end

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Paradoxically, the rise to fame and notoriety of the Beat poets was at the same time the beginning of their decline as a literary movement, though individual members of the group continued to publish work of high quality well into the next century. The literary establishment, which saw the Beat poets as threatening intruders in “their” carefully guarded territory, continued to savage and disparage them in academic journals and other publications. However, since comparatively few people ever read these pieces, they had little or no impact on the public. More devastating was a switch in tactics to ridicule and parody, since it was conducted in the mass media, particularly film and television.

On April 2, 1958, the word “beatnik” appeared for the first time, in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, six months after the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik. By adding the Russian suffix -nik to the word “Beat,” the effect, if not the intent, was to depict the Beats as communistic and unpatriotic. This article, together with two feature articles in Life magazine, helped create the cartoon character of the Beatnik—in opposition to the middle-class squares—that became a staple of films and television programs in the years to follow. These cartoon characters reduced the serious social and poetic concerns of the Beat poets to a set of superficial, silly externals that have survived to this day: berets, goatees, sunglasses, poetry readings, coffeehouses, slouches, and “cool, man, cool” slang, as popularized by Maynard G. Krebs, the television character played by Bob Denver in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-1963).

Adding to the detrimental effect of the Beatnik parody was the increasing absorption of the Beat legend into American mainstream commercial culture, which resulted in the slow disintegration of the Beat poets as a group, precipitated by some highly publicized squabbles and jockeying for position. Rexroth felt slighted by the media attention received by Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, and he wrote a series of scathing articles and reviews of Kerouac’s work. Corso felt equally neglected and expressed his discontent in several interviews. Kerouac himself became more and more distraught by his inability to reconcile his self-created public image as peripatetic rebel and loner with his yearning for stability and status and began drinking heavily. His appearances on talk shows added to the parodistic image of the stoned, dissolute Beatnik.

The Beat goes on

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

After the golden age (1955-1961), there was a noticeable diaspora in the Beat community, during which the individual members began to pursue their own interests and careers, many of them in academic positions. This diaspora was preceded by a flourish of important publications of Beat poetry in 1961 and 1962. Snyder, who had joined a Buddhist monastery in 1956, published Myths and Texts (1960), which contains some of his best poems. Burroughs, after experimenting with his “cut-up” technique, published Naked Lunch and The Ticket That Exploded in 1962, the former leading to another famous obscenity trial a few years later. Ginsberg’s other masterpiece, his long confessional poem “Kaddish,” was published in Kaddish, and Other Poems, 1958-1960 (1961). Most notably, however, a substantial number of Beat poems were included in Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (1961), the first time a mainstream collection had considered the Beat poets part of the canon. Further evidence for the increasing absorption of the Beat poets into the mainstream can be seen in the awarding of a Guggenheim Fellowship to Ginsberg in 1963-1964, Snyder’s accepting a faculty position at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964, and Scribner’s publishing the first critical study of the movement, The Beat Generation: The Tumultuous50s Movement and Its Impact on Today (1969), by Bruce Cook.

The death of the triumvirate of Beat poetry—Kerouac in 1969, Ginsberg and Burroughs in 1997—gave rise to new scholarly interest in the Beat poets and produced a flood of biographies, memoirs, and critical studies. A number of English departments at colleges and universities have courses on the Beat generation, and most of the major work and collections of the Beat poets are still in print. Critics and scholars agree that while the creative period of the Beat poets as an identifiable movement with common goals and aspirations was relatively short, its influence is still felt in the twenty-first century. The trend toward performance-oriented, spontaneous, open-form poetry continues unabated, notably in the popular poetry slam, and there is consensus that the Beat poets directly affected political and social progress in the areas of ecology, gay and lesbian rights, and drug legislation.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Charters, Ann, ed. The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America. 2 vols. Detroit: Gale Group, 1983. Very comprehensive documentary volume on the most important Beat poets. Good introductions, samples of critical articles, and correspondence.

Hemmer, Kurt, ed. Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. New York: Facts On File, 2007. Contains hundreds of entries on all the major figures and great works of the Beat movement, by distinguished Beat scholars and friends of the Beat generation.

Theado, Matt, ed. The Beats: A Documentary Volume. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. An invaluable reference work for scholars...

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