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

Jakob Baekgaard By

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Overall, the goal of the Beat Generation was to portray life in all its shapes and sizes and write in a true and honest way. That also meant bringing words closer to music, with the howl of the human soul resembling the deep blowing of a saxophone. Another meaning of beat is like a beat in music or a drumbeat. Especially Jack Kerouac was influenced by jazz music and his prose is ripe with rhythmical patterns. Sometimes, he even writes like a saxophonist, with long flowing sentences like an endless saxophone solo or short sentences like razor-sharp little riffs. Kerouac called his style of writing spontaneous prose and there is a clear analogy between his stream of thoughts and the act of improvisation.

In terms of style, bebop was the music of choice and On the Road includes a reference to the iconic saxophone duel between saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray on "The Hunt." It was also an era where the combination of jazz and poetry reading was pioneered. Kerouac recorded with the saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and Kenneth Patchen played with the Chamber Jazz Sextet. Music was also in the syntax. Allen Ginsberg talked about the influence of saxophonists Lester Young and Charlie Parker on "Howl" while Ray Bremser and Bob Kaufman wrote jazz poems. Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) was not only influenced by jazz, he was also a jazz critic, and John Clellon Holmes created one of the finest jazz novels ever written with his portrait of the fictive saxophonist Edgar Pool in The Horn (1958).

Epilog: A Poetic View on the World

Jazz is the music of the moment that is best able to combine energy and sadness in a primal cry. That is why it is so eminently suited to the Beat Generation. Another expression of the Beat Generation's occupation with the presence of the moment is the fascination with Eastern Philosophy, especially Buddhism. The idea of Zen and presence in the moment is central in the philosophy of the Beat Generation and perhaps best expressed poetically in the form of a haiku. Here, Kerouac writes, "What is Buddhism? / -A crazy little / Bird blub." The bird could be an ordinary bird in nature, but it might as well be the saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker playing a "blub" on his saxophone, piercing through the silence with the beauty of his horn.

Taking the perspective of the outsider, the Beat Generation found beauty in the most unusual places without ignoring the pain and worrisome aspects of existence. The writers are very different when it comes to style, but one thing they have in common: whether it is Burroughs cutting up previous texts and putting them together in a new way, Kerouac writing in a stream of consciousness, or Ginsberg using repetition to makes his poem a cosmic chant, it is all about breaking up the familiar habits of seeing. Instead, the purpose is to provide a new and poetic view on the world.


Charters, Ann: The Portable Beat Reader, Penguin Classics, 2003

Janssen, Mike: "Jazz and the Beat Generation":

Lauridsen, Inger Thorup & Per Dalgaard: The Beat Generation and the Russian New Wave, Ardis, 1990

Morgan, Bill: The Typewriter is Holy. The Complete Uncensored History of the Beat Generation, Free Press, 2010

Phipps-Kettlewell, Marilène (editor) Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems, Library of America, 2012

Waldman, Anne (editor): The Beat Book. Writings from the Beat Generation, Shambhala Publications, 1996

Music/Sound Recordings:

Various Artists: The Beat Generation, Rhino Records, 1992

Various Artists; Howls, Raps & Roars: Recordings from the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, Fantasy, 1993

Various Artists: Beat Generation Boxed, Enlightenment, 2014


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