The Beat Generation: Characteristics of Beat Poetry

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  • 0:07 A Rebellion Begins
  • 0:50 The Beat Generation
  • 2:05 Influences
  • 4:01 Characteristics
  • 5:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

It's a movement that began with a howl, and it had a major impact on both poetry and culture in America. In this lesson, we'll cover the Beat Generation and review the defining characteristics of their style.

A Rebellion Begins

'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...'

And so begins Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl,' one of the defining works of the Beat Generation. Those first few lines capture much of the spirit of the movement: madness, the streets, drugs. And the poem only gets more controversial from there.

This poem debuted in 1955, when the World War II generation was raising their baby boomer kids in neat little houses with picket fences. Dwight Eisenhower was president, and it was a great time to be white, male and middle class. So, who were these crazy poets, and why were they so rebellious?

The Beat Generation

To put it simply, the Beat Generation was a group of writers that emerged in the 1950s to reject literary formalism and the American culture built on capitalism and materialism. They included Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and others. While there were some women, this was mostly a boy's club.

It was Kerouac who coined the term 'Beat Generation.' It was meant to describe how they felt beat down, defeated and out of place among the returning soldiers and businessmen. The Beats were as much about an attitude and culture as they were about a literary style. Granted, many of the Beats came from upper- or middle-class backgrounds and went to prestigious universities. For example, Ginsberg and Kerouac met at Columbia University in New York. But they chose to rebel against societal norms.

They congregated out west in San Francisco, a city they found to be much more supportive of counter-culture than anywhere on the East Coast. In San Francisco, Ferlinghetti ran the City Lights bookstore (which is still a great place to check out), and he helped many writers get published. With this community of kindred spirits, Beat poets could thrive.

Influences

Before the Beats, there were the Modernists. Specifically, there were people like T.S. Eliot, who wrote poetry as stiff and formal as you'd expect from a guy who looks like this. The Beat poets hated Eliot and his ascetic.

I mean, here's Eliot. And here's Ginsberg. Eliot represented the establishment, tradition and adherence to form. His writing was very much divorced from the intimate and emotion. Compared to Eliot's work, Ginsberg's 'Howl' is like a catharsis. It feels sloppy, reckless and intensely personal and emotional.

Yet, that style didn't originate with the Beats. Many Beat poets cited the Romantics, like Shelley and Blake, as direct influences. The Romantics had rebelled against the intellectualism of the Enlightenment. By the 1950s, the pendulum had swung back towards the intellectual and the Beats moved it back toward the personal.

They were also influenced by jazz music, which was still seen as somewhat scandalous and certainly not something you'd ever see Eliot enjoying. Earlier I said that 'Howl' feels sloppy and reckless. This is just like a long jazz improvisation. It sounds like they're making it all up as they go, but it actually requires incredible discipline and practice.

In fact, here's the opening of 'Junkman's Obbligato,' a poem by Ferlinghetti that was meant to be accompanied by jazz:

'Let's go

Come on

Let's go

Empty our pockets

And disappear.

Missing all our appointments

And turning up unshaven

Years later

Old cigarette papers

stuck to our pants

leaves in our hair.

Let us not

worry about the payments

anymore.

Let them come

and take it away

whatever it was

we were paying for.'

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