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The Word is Beat: Jazz, Poetry & the Beat Generation

The Word is Beat: Jazz, Poetry & the Beat Generation
Jakob Baekgaard By

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It is the aspiration of much literature that it wants to change the way we look at the world, but few authors and poets have been as influential as the group of writers labeled the Beat Generation. They saw a lot that they did not like about American society in the fifties when they came of age, and they did their best to change it through their literature and a new practice of living. They grew up in the climate of the Cold War and felt the pending threat of the nuclear bomb, but instead of being paralyzed by fear, they directed their energy towards changing society and created their own subculture in places as diverse as Greenwich Village in New York, San Francisco and Paris. They rebelled against capitalism, war and middle-class values and they championed freedom, sexuality, spirituality and the mind-expanding use of drugs. In many ways, their Bohemian life style anticipated the great youth rebellion in the sixties, but the soundtrack of their revolt was not rock 'n' roll, but jazz, an art form that also influenced their way of writing.

Who belongs to the Beat Generation?

The Beat Generation is a term that can be used to describe the generation of young people who grew up in the fifties, but it is important to emphasize that it was a subculture which grew slowly and gradually became more and more influential. Not every young person could identify with it and it was essentially a literary movement.

By now, the term the Beat Generation often covers a large group of writers, so it might be useful to divide the many writers into different categories. Firstly, there are the muses, Neal Cassady and Herbert Huncke. Through their life style and way of talking, they influenced the style and philosophy of the Beat Generation.

Secondly, there are what you might call the kings of the Beats. As the poet Michael McClure, who has also been associated with the Beat Generation, points out: "Originally, I think the Beat Generation was a specific, very small group of people. Originally, the Beats were (Jack) Kerouac, (Allen) Ginsberg, (William S.) Burroughs, and maybe (Gregory) Corso, and that's the core of the Beat phenomenon." (Lauridsen & Dalgaard: 115: 1990).

Thirdly, there are the Six Gallery poets. They include Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. They are called so because they read their poetry at a now historic reading in the Six Gallery in San Francisco on Friday, October 7, 1955. This was the first time Allen Ginsberg read his famous poem "Howl." Because of this poem, he was later tried in court, accused of obscenity.

Fourthly, there is large group of writers more or less associated with the Beat Generation. Some of them belong to other groupings like the Black Mountain School, the New York School and the San Francisco Renaissance. They include writers like Paul Bowles, Kenneth Patchen, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Bob Kaufman, John Clellon Holmes, Carl Solomon, Peter Orlovsky, John Weiners, Frank O'Hara, Lew Welch, Amiri Baraka, Ray Bremser, Ed Sanders and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Especially Ferlinghetti has played an important role in Beat history through his work as a publisher. His City Lights imprint has released a large number of Beat books, including Howl and Other Poems (1956).

Fifthly, there is a group of female Beat writers, the queens of the Beat Generation. They are relatively few, but include Diane di Prima, Brenda Frazer, Hettie Jones, Joan Kerouac, Joyce Johnson and Carolyn Cassady.

Finally, there are the heirs of the Beat Generation whose writing shows a strong influence from the movement. They include musicians like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, the photographer Robert Frank, the painter Larry Rivers and authors like Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson.

The Meaning of Beat

The word "beat" is just as complex as the Beat Generation and it covers many different meanings. According to Allen Ginsberg, the word was coined in 1948 in a conversation between John Clellon Holmes and Jack Kerouac. They were talking about generations, including Ernest Hemingway's Lost Generation in the 1920s, and attempted to describe their own generation. Kerouac ended up saying that: "Ah, this is nothing but a beat generation." Holmes picked up on the phrase and used it in his influential article "This Is the Beat Generation" (1952), which introduced the word to a wide audience.


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