Goirick Brahmachari is from New Delhi and writes about music and literature.
Who Were the Beat Poets?
The Beat poets and writers were the ideological predecessors and mentors of the late 1960s sexual and political revolution, led by the Hippies. Much of their work explores and critiques American culture, society and politics. The prominent Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who participated in the countercultural movement of the 1960s, once wrote that the Beats' influence had the following effects on American society:
- Spiritual revolution
- Sexual liberation
- Demystification of drugs
- Spread of ecological awareness
- Opposition to the military-industry machine civilization
- Appreciation of individualism as opposed to state uniformity
These are certainly some lofty claims, but there is merit to them, and at the very least they help define the ideology of the Beats themselves. They formulated these ideas and spread them; these ideas were absorbed by the Hippies and also complimented parts of the Civil Rights Movement. In this sense, the Beat generation's ideology can be considered a large part of modern, left-wing America's heritage.
The Beats relied on the oral tradition of poetry, often wrote in long lines inspired by Walt Whitman and used Bebop-like sounds, all of which made their poems distinct from their more formal contemporaries. Literary figures of the 1950s both condemned and praised the work of the Beats. Some saw their work as rant-like, overly excited and ultimately insubstantial. Others saw this new generation of writers as raw, honest and powerful—as writers raising a cry against the ills of modern society.
This article discusses the following 10 remarkable Beat/Beat-influenced poets who changed how poetry is read and written today:
- Allen Ginsberg
- Gregory Corso
- Lawrence Ferlinghetti
- Elise Cowen
- Gary Snyder
- Amiri Baraka
- Janine Pommy Vega
- Diane di Prima
- Michael McClure
- Anne Waldman
1. Allen Ginsberg
Upon publishing Howl and Other Poems in 1956, Allen Ginsberg rose to national attention. The book stunned not only literary critics and contemporary poets but also the San Francisco Police Department. They arrested Ginsberg's publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the grounds that the book was obscene.
A long trial ended in Judge Clayton W. Horn exonerating Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. The trial also drew attention from Life Magazine, and the publication covered the story, helping catapult Ginsberg, his poetry and the San Francisco Beat Movement into public awareness. The result of the trial also led to the publication of previously censored works by Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence.
Allen Ginsberg Reading His Poem 'Howl'
Ginsberg's political activism gradually increased throughout the 1960s and he became a figure in the American counterculture and anti-war movements. He promoted 'flower power,' or the use of values like peace and love to create a stark opposition to the death and horror of the Vietnam War. The poet was arrested, teargassed, jailed and excused from various countries he visited.
Ginsberg was an eclectic thinker and artist who was fascinated by an unusual host of things: the English Romantic poets William Blake and Percy Shelley, the American Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Eastern religions all captured his imagination. He formally committed himself to Buddhism in 1972.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
My mind is made up there’s going to be trouble.
You should have seen me reading Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I’m perfectly right.
— from 'America' by Allen Ginsberg
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2. Gregory Corso
Gregory Corso was the youngest of the key Beat figures and carried one of the longest rap sheets. He was born to a sixteen-year-old mother in New York who soon left him to be raised by Catholic charities. He spent a decade in foster care, his absent father not attempting to find and raise him. Eventually, his father took him in in an effort to dodge the World War 2 draft but was nevertheless drafted, leaving Corso homeless.
Corso slept in subways and on roofs. He was arrested for stealing a toaster at 13 and sent to the Manhattan Detention Complex, also known as the 'The Tombs.' He was incarcerated with psychotic murderers, an experience that traumatized him. A year later, Corso broke into an office to find warmth during a blizzard. He fell asleep and was subsequently arrested for breaking and entering. The authorities sent him back to The Tombs. He was terrified of the other prisoners and was soon transferred to the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital and later released.
At 17 Corso was once again incarcerated and sent to Clinton Prison, where, in a startling series of events, he fell under the protection of the Mafia. He was transferred to the Mafia boss Charles 'Lucky' Luciano's old cell, which included a sophisticated library. Corso studied Greek and Roman classics, English poets like Shelley, Marlowe and Chatterton and the 11-volume Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant.
Should I get married? Should I be good?
Astound the girl next door
With my velvet suit and faustus hood?
Don’t take her to movies but to cemeteries;
Tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked
Lean against an old crooked tombstone,
And woo her the entire night.
— from 'Marriage' by Gregory Corso
Corso met Allen Ginsberg in the Pony Stable Inn, a lesbian bar in New York where Corso worked. Ginsberg was a student at Columbia University at the time. They became fast friends and Corso was inducted into the inner circle of the Beat Generation along with Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.
Though Corso was the youngest of this core group, he was the first published, releasing his book The Vestal Lady on Brattle in 1952. Corso attained much fame through his poems 'Bomb' and 'Marriage,' written in the late '50s and early '60s.
Gregory Corso Reading His Poem 'Bomb'
Corso was a lifelong fan of Shelley, and often referred to the English Romantic as a 'Revolutionary of Spirit,' a label he also applied to himself. It is fitting, then, that Corso's ashes were dropped at the foot of Shelley's grave in Cimitero Acattolico in Rome, Italy.
Corso wrote his own epitaph, featured below.
It flows thru
the death of me
like a river
3. Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a poet, playwright, painter, activist and publisher who founded City Lights Booksellers and Publishers in San Francisco. City Lights remains a cultural landmark that published and hailed the Beat poets and other free speech poetry movements around the world. Ferlinghetti's publication of Ginsberg's first book of poems brought the bookstore/publisher to international attention.
Although perhaps best remembered as a publisher, Ferlinghetti is one of the best Beat poets in his own right and deserves more recognition and readership as a writer/poet. In 1955, Ferlinghetti launched the publishing wing of City Lights with his own first book of poems, Pictures of the Gone World, followed by books by Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Marie Ponsot, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, William Carlos Williams and Gregory Corso.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti Reading His Poem 'Poetry as Insurgent Art'
'Poetry as Insurgent Art' remains one of Ferlinghetti's most celebrated poems. Other notable publications include A Coney Island of the Mind, Endless Life: Selected Poems and These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems, 1955-1993. A Coney Island of the Mind is one of the bestselling books of poetry ever published, with approximately one million copies in print circulation. It includes the poems 'I Am Waiting' and 'Junkman's Obbligato,' two of Ferlinghetti's most famous.
Ferlinghetti lived an extremely long and productive life, dying in February 2021 at the age of 101. San Francisco has named March 24 (the poet/publisher's birthday) 'Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day' in his honor.
I am awaiting retribution
for what America did
to Tom Sawyer
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
and I am waiting
for Childe Roland to come
to the final darkest tower
— from 'I Am Waiting' by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
4. Elise Cowen
One of the most underrated Beat poets, Elise Cowen wrote poetry from a young age and was inspired by the work of Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Dylan Thomas. Cowen and Allen Ginsberg were acquaintances of Carl Solomon (about whom the most famous Beat poem 'Howl' was written), during their stay at a mental hospital together.
Ginsberg and Elise fell in love briefly before Peter Orlovsky came into the scene and became Ginsberg's lover. In 1956, Elise and her lesbian lover Sheila moved into an apartment with Ginsberg and Orlovsky.
Emily white witch of Amherst
The shy white witch of Amherst
Killed her teachers
With her love
I'll rather mine entomb
Or best that soft grey dove.
— 'Emily...' by Elise Cowen
Cowen struggled with depression for most of her life. In a series of events during the late '50s and early '60s, she was fired from her job as a typist, underwent a late-stage abortion, endured a series of psychological breakdowns and was then admitted to Bellevue Hospital in New York City.
She checked herself out against her doctor's wishes and went to her parents' home, where she committed suicide by jumping from the living room window and falling seven stories. In 1998, Women of the Beat Generation: Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution, edited by Brenda Knight, was published. This book forced a reconsideration of Elise Cowen's work and influence, and she is increasingly thought to be one of the most powerful writers of the Beat generation.
Your arms around me all night
I woke to find me there
Not knowing what you held
By the tenderness holding me
And once my eyes opened on
Tearing through your face
In the act of come,
I didn’t know you looked like that
Everything I love, I need to be
Hides in you.
— 'Your arms around me all night' by Elise Cowen
5. Gary Snyder
The Zen master, poet, environmentalist, essayist, lecturer, Gary Sherman Snyder is called the 'poet laureate of Deep Ecology.' He has travelled across Asia, specifically spending much time in Japan practising Zen Buddhism. He also travelled extensively in India and went across the Himalayas with Allen Ginsberg and his long-time partner Joanne Kyger, an experience that birthed his book Passage Through India.
Gary Snyder Reading Four Poems
A prolific author, his other notable works include Mountains and Rivers Without End, Danger on Peaks, No Nature: New and Selected Poems, The Practice of the Wild, Left Out in the Rain and Turtle Island. Snyder's style mingles his religious experiences with his daily life. Major influences on his work include Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound and Japanese haiku.
Only in dream, like this dawn,
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.
We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.
— from 'December at Yase' by Gary Snyder
He has translated Chinese and Japanese poetry extensively and has been influenced by the art of haiku and other Eastern writing styles. He was one of the poets who read his work at the famous Six Gallery readings and was the basis of the character Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac's novel, The Dharma Bums.
Snyder has been a professor at the University of California-Davis for numerous years. Throughout a distinguished career, he has won both the prestigious Bollingen Prize and Pulitzer Prize, among many other awards. Though his writing production has slowed down, he published as recently as 2016.
Lovers part, from the tangle warm
Of gentle bodies under quilt
And crack the icy water to the face
— from 'Kyoto: March' by Gary Snyder
6. Amiri Baraka
Everett LeRoi Jones changed his name to Amiri Baraka after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. Baraka was a controversial and polarizing figure who changed political stances throughout his lifetime. He began as a member of the avant-garde in the 1950s, joined the Nation of Islam in the '60s and then became involved in third-world liberation movements in the '70s.
In his early 20s he joined the US Air Force and reached the rank of Sergeant, but was eventually dishonorably discharged for supposedly possessing Soviet literature. Despite this, his tenure with the Air Force provided him a very great experience. While stationed in Puerto Rico he worked at the base library, where he read and became inspired by the Beat poets. It was also here that began writing poetry.
What I thought was love
in me, I find a thousand instances
as fear. (Of the tree's shadow
winding around the chair, a distant music
of frozen birds rattling
in the cold.
Where ever I go to claim
my flesh, there are entrances
of spirit. And even its comforts
are hideous uses I strain
— from 'Liar' by Amiri Baraka
It was only natural that Baraka eventually ended up in Greenwich Village where he met and married the poet Hettie Cohen. He and his wife started the Totem Press which published Beat Generation greats such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Baraka also worked as an editor and critic for the literary arts journal Kulchur.
From the late '60s until 1980, Baraka was actively involved in Black politics and writing, as well as the aforementioned liberation movements. He was arrested in Newark for having allegedly carried an illegal weapon and resisting arrest during the 1967 Newark riots. The judge read his poem 'Black People' in court, a poem published in the Evergreen Review in December 1967:
'All the stores will open if you say the magic words… Up against the wall motherf***er, this is a stick-up!'
Amiri Baraka Reading His Poem 'I Am'
What can I do to myself? Bones
and dusty skin. Heavy eyes twisted
between the adequate thighs of all
humanity (a little h), strumming my head
for a living. Bankrupt utopia sez tell me
no utopias. I will not listen. (Except the raw wind
makes the hero's eyes close, and the tears that come
out are real.
— from 'History as Process' by Amiri Baraka
7. Janine Pommy Vega
Inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Janine Pommy Vega was just 16 when she travelled to Manhattan to become involved in the Beat literary movement. Vega's first book, Poems to Fernando, was published by City Lights Publishers in 1968. She dedicated the work to her husband after his sudden death, which forced her to come back to the US from Europe.
She has published more than a dozen books of poems, which primarily explore the primal female force in society. Some of the notable works of Vega include The Bard Owl (1980), Drunk on a Glacier, Talking to Flies (1988) and Mad Dogs of Trieste (2000). Vega was well-travelled, traversing the Himalayas, Nepal, the Amazon and Europe seeking spiritualism and poetic inspiration.
To circle and circle your head in the photo
with my fingers, like rubbing your stomach
in the old days, intimacy
not entirely forgotten,
Old lover, you said as you signed my book,
I might say, lover, teacher, friend,
and look toward my own gaze through the fabric
at what was real, what is not, the who I ams
that might not climb again, best the uphill
slope, or swallow without hesitation
the final nothing at the top.
— from 'Reading Your Last Book, Fame & Death'
by Janine Pommy Vega
During the 1970s, Vega worked as an educator in schools through various arts-in-education programs and in prisons through the Incisions/Arts organisation. She was an instrumental thinker in advocating for more favourable conditions for women in US prisons.
In 1997, Vega published Tracking the Serpent: Journeys to Four Continents, a collection of travel writings that detailed her life abroad. The last 11 years of her life were spent with the poet Andy Clausen. Vega died of a heart attack at her home in Willow, New York in 2010.
Janine Pommy Vega Performing Her Poem 'Across the Table'
Realist in the best sense
you stretch out to embrace a word:
freedom, for instance
more than a sound, the thing itself
like love reverberating with all the tremors
— from 'Four Days Before Rumi Died'
by Janine Pommy Vega
8. Diane di Prima
While their male counterparts sadly overshadowed women Beat poets, poets like Di Prima explain why a closer reading and a greater sharing of their poetry and thoughtful lines are important in this post-feminist age.
Diane di Prima has authored more than 40 books and her work has been translated into 20 languages. Her poetic style successfully mingles stream-of-consciousness and traditional form. Di Prima also attempted to merge politics and spiritual practice in her work. This urge may be traced back to the deep influence of her grandfather, who endowed her with a political consciousness.
Diane di Prima Reading Her Poems 'Revolutionary Letters #29 and #19'
Di Prima wasted no time and was a tireless worker. She was in correspondence with Ezra Pound since she was 19 and began writing poetry as a child. She edited The Floating Bear with Amiri Baraka from 1961 to 1969 and was a co-founder of the New York Poets Theatre. She also founded the Poets Press.
Furthermore, she faced obscenity charges like her Beat counterparts. She associated with the Diggers, a radical, anarchist street theatre group based in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, and studied Buddhism, Sanskrit, Gnosticism and Alchemy. Di Prima also taught Poetry at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and at Naropa University.
I saw you in green velvet, wide full sleeves
seated in front of a fireplace, our house
made somehow more gracious, and you said
“There are stars in your hair”— it was truth I
brought down with me
to this sullen and dingy place that we must make golden
make precious and mythical somehow, it is our nature,
and it is truth, that we came here, I told you,
from other planets
where we were lords, we were sent here,
for some purpose
— from 'Buddhist New Year Song' by Diane di Prima
Her most notable works include This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958), the long poem Loba (1978, expanded 1998) and Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems (2001). Di Prima was a recipient of many grants, including the National Endowment for the Arts, and also received an honorary doctorate from St. Lawrence University.
9. Michael McClure
A friend of Jim Morrison, Mr. Pat Mclear from Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and one of the five Beat poets who read in the historic San Francisco Sixth Gallery readings, Michael McClure is a Beat poet/writer of much renown. His style, an attempt to fuse moments of spiritual ecstasy with the physical body, includes unconventional layout, complete spontaneity and Buddhist spirituality.
Michael McClure Reading His Poem 'Ode to Jackson Pollock'
Over a long career, McClure published fourteen books of poems, eight books of plays and four collections of essays. McClure famously read selections of his 'Ghost Tantra' poem series to the caged lions at the San Francisco Zoo. He has been featured in several movies including Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz and was responsible for helping Jim Morrison publish his poetry.
McClure also wrote the lyric 'Mercedes Benz,' which was popularised by Janis Joplin. Riders on the Storm, a band featuring Doors members Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger, has performed some of McClure's songs. Furthermore, his articles have been featured in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.
The mind drifts through
in the shape of a museum,
in the guise of a museum
dreaming dead friends:
Jim, Tom, Emmet, Bill.
—Like billboards their huge faces droop
and stretch on the walls,
on the walls of the cliffs out there,
where trees with white trunks
makes plumes on rock ridges.
My mind is fingers holding a pen.
— from 'Mexico Seen from the Moving Car'
by Michael McClure
10. Anne Waldman
The poet, performer, collaborator, professor and cultural and political activist Anne Waldman is one of the most respected and prolific female Beat poets alive. She founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado with Allen Ginsberg in 1974.
Born in Greenwich Village, New York City, Waldman became part of the East Coast poetry scene and has been performing poetry ever since. She has published over 40 volumes of poetry and poetics and is an active member of the Outrider experimental poetry movement.
Anne Waldman Reading Her Poem 'Battery'
Her notable publications include Fast Speaking Woman (1975) and Marriage: A Sentence (2000). Waldman was featured in Bob Dylan's 1978 film, Renaldo and Clara, along with Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Sara Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Eric Anderson and Joe Cocker, all of whom are seen travelling through New England and Canada in a caravan.
My coat a cape of horrors
I'd walk through town or
impending earthquake. Was that it?
Ominous days. Street shiny with
hallucinatory light on sad dogs,
too many religious people, or a woman
startled me by her look of indecision
near the empty stadium
I walked back spooked by
my own darkness
Then Frank called to say
“What? Not done complaining yet?
Can't you smell the eucalyptus,
have you never neared the Pacific?
— from 'A Phonecall from Frank O’Hara'
by Anne Waldman
Beat Generation Documentary
References and Further Reading
The following list provides sources for the biographical and historical information in this article. These sources are also avenues for further reading.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. (2021, Mar. 24). 'Beat movement.' https://www.britannica.com/art/Beat-movement
Rahn, Josh. (2011). 'The Beat Generation.' The Literature Network. http://www.online-literature.com/periods/beat.php
Kiely, Christopher. (2017, Mar. 13). 'The Beat Generation, Hippies, and Hunter S. Thompson: From Progressive to Regressive.' Areo Magazine. https://areomagazine.com/2017/03/13/the-beat-generation-hippies-and-hunter-s-thompson-from-progressive-to-regressive/
McLemee, Scott. (2007, Mar. 13). 'Ginsberg, Allen (1926-1997).' GLBTQ Encyclopedia. https://web.archive.org/web/20070313003635/http://www.glbtq.com/literature/ginsberg_a.html
Sederberg, James. (n.d.). 'The Howl Obscenity Trial.' Found SF. https://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=The_Howl_Obscenity_Trial
Poetry Foundation. (n.d.). 'Allen Ginsberg.' https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/allen-ginsberg
Wills, David S. (n.d.). 'The Life of Gregory Corso.' Beatdom. https://www.beatdom.com/the-life-of-gregory-corso/amp/