Top 10 Beat Poets Who Changed How Poetry Is Written or Read

Updated on June 15, 2017
Amie S profile image

Amiee prefers to observe living beings from a distance and spends hours talking to non-living things.

Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg | Source

The Bards of the Modern Word

The Beat poets and writers were the ideological mentors of late 1960’s sexual and political revolution, led by the hippies. Many consider them as the literary backbone of the freedom of speech and LGBT movements of 1970’s America. A majority of their work explored American culture, society and politics. Further, their reliance on the oral tradition of poetry, Whitman inspired long lines of long breath and Bebop like sounds made their poems distinctly different from their contemporaries. As the world begins to look increasingly like 1960’s again, with Right-wing leaders, mass racism and xenophobia that envelopes the world, here is a list of 10 remarkable Beat/ Beat-influenced poets who changed how poetry is read and written today.

10. Anne Waldman

Poet, performer, collaborator, professor, cultural and political activist, Anne Waldman is probably one of the most respected and prolific women 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 the hippy den, Greenwich Village, NYC, Waldman became part of the east coast poetry scene and has been performing poetry since. She has published over 40 volumes of poetry and is an active member of the Outrider experimental poetry movement. Her notable publications include Fast speaking women (1975), Marriage: a sentence (2000) among others. 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, who are seen travelling through New England and Canada in a caravan.

9. Michael McClure

Friend of Jim Morrison, Mr. Pat Mclear from Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, one of the five Beat poets who read in the historic San Francisco Sixth Gallery readings, Michael McClure is one of the beat poets/ writers of repute who has over the years published fourteen books of poems, eight books of plays and four collections of essays. McClure had 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’s lyrics include Mercedes Benz, (popularised by Janis Joplin). Riders on the Storm, a band featuring Doors members Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger has performed his new songs. His articles have been featured in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

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 age of post-feminism. Diane di Prima has authored around 50 books of poems and her work has been translated into 20 languages. Di Prima was in correspondence with Ezra Pound since she was 19 and has been writing poetry since she was a child. She edited The Floating Bear with Amiri Baraka and was a co-founder of the New York Poets Theatre. She also founded the Poets Press. She has faced obscenity charges like her Beat counterparts. She has 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, at Naropa University. Her poetry collections include This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958), the long poem Loba (1978, expanded 1998), and Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems (2001) among others.

7. Janine Pommy Vega

Janine Pommy Vega was 16 when she travelled to Manhattan to become involved in the Beat literary movement, inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The poet, teacher and activist, Vega released her first book 'Poems to Fernando', from City Lights Publishers in 1968, dedicated 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 of the book of poems, which primarily explore the primal female force in a society. Some of the notable work of Vega include The Bard Owl (1980); Drunk on a Glacier, Talking to Flies (1988), Mad Dogs of Trieste (2000), and The Green Piano (2005). She has travelled through the Himalayas, Nepal, Amazon and Europe to seek spiritualism and poetry. Janine pommy Vega began working as an educator in schools through various arts in education programs and in prisons through the Incisions/Arts organisation during the 1970’s. She was one of the pioneers of the women's movement in the USA. She was also one of the instrumental thinkers to make conditions favourable for women in prison in the US.

6. Amiri Baraka

Everett LeRoi Jones had changed his name to Amiri Baraka after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. For someone who had served in the US Air Force as a Sergeant, who was accused of being communist for possessing Soviet literature, and who would later start writing poetry inspired by the Beat poets; it was only natural that he eventually landed up at the Greenwich Village and met, married poet, co-publisher, Hettie Cohen (Jones), and started the Totem Press which published The Beat Generation greats such as, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Baraka also worked as editor and critic for the literary and arts journal Kulchur.

From late 1960’s until 1980, Baraka got involved in black politics and writing. He was arrested in Newark for having allegedly carried an illegal weapon and resisting arrest during the 1967 Newark riots. The judge in the court read his poem “Black People”, published in the Evergreen Review in December 1967:

"All the stores will open if you say the magic words… Up against the wall motherfucker, this is a stick-up!”

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 and in India across the Himalayas with Allen Ginsberg and his long-time partner Joanne Kyger, which gave birth to his book “Passage Through India”. Other notable work by him 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, New Poems 1947-1985; Axe Handles, Turtle Island, and Myths & Texts.

He has translated extensively from poetry in Chinese and Japanese and has been influenced by the art of Haiku and other Japanese writing styles. He was one of the poets who read his work at the famous Six Gallery readings and was mentioned in Kerouac's novel, The Dharma Bums.

To quote Snyder:

“Lovers part, from tangle warm

Of gentle bodies under quilt

And crack the icy water to the face”

4. Elise Cowen

One of the most underrated Beat poets, Elise was inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Dylan Thomas. Elise and Allen Ginsberg were an acquaintance of Carl Solomon (- about whom the most famous Beat poem 'Howl' was written), during their stay at a mental hospital together.

Allen Ginsberg and Elise would fall in love briefly before Peter Orlovsky came into the scene. In 1956, Elise and her lesbian lover Sheila moved into an apartment with Ginsberg and Orlovsky. Being depressed for most of her life, feeling felt out, and fired from her job, she eventually committed suicide jumping onto the floor from her living room. Since 'Women of the Beat Generation: Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution', edited by Brenda Knight came out in 1998, Elise Nada Cohen is increasingly being thought to be one of the most powerful writers of the Beat generation.

"I took the heads of corpses

to do my reading by

I found my name on every page

and every word a lie."


"Death I’m coming

Wait for me

I know you’ll be

at the subway station

loaded with galoshes, raincoat, umbrella, babushka

And your single simple answer

to every meaning

incorruptible institution"

3. Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Poet, writer, playwright, painter, liberal activist, publisher, founder of City Lights Booksellers and Publishers that has over the years published and hailed the Beat poets and other free speech poetry movements around the world, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of the best Beat poets who needs 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. 'Poetry as Insurgent Art' remains one of his most celebrated poems. Besides, his notable publications include 'A Coney Island of the Mind, Endless Life: Selected Poems' and 'These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems, 1955-1993'.

2. Gregory Corso

The second best Beat poet perhaps? He will not agree to that. He never agrees to anything. The reckless Corso- a messy affair that he is! A key member of the Beat poetry scene, Croso was a convention-breaking asshole of his kind. 'An awakener of youth' as Allen Ginsberg had famously remarked. He has been arrested for petty theft more than twice in his adolescent years and put into New York’s infamous jail The Tombs.

In spite of his reckless youth years, Corso’s writing resembles the classicist and he was inspired by the Greek and Roman classics and poetically by Shelley, Marlowe, and Chatterton. A big fan of P.B Shelley, Corso referred to Shelley often as a "Revolutionary of Spirit".

In 1955, Corso published his first volume of poetry 'The Vestal Lady on Brattle'. Corso attained much fame through his poems 'Bomb' and 'Marriage', written in late 50's and 60s. Though younger to the rest of the core team of Beats, Corso eventually evolved as the natural fourth partner of Beat generation writers after Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs.

And for his own epitaph:


is Life

It flows thru

the death of me


like a river


of becoming

the sea"

1. Allen Ginsberg

The saint and the madman defined. Poet is Priest, he screams in a poem titled “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear”. Sometimes he argues with a sunflower and a locomotive: “You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower! And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me not!”

Does this man even need an explanation?: “Said the Buddha Skeleton Compassion is wealth. Said the Corporate skeleton. It's bad for your health.”

Or when he chants, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!”

Or a more subdued anger:

“America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.

America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.

I can’t stand my own mind.

America when will we end the human war?

Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.

I don’t feel good don’t bother me."

A Beat Generation Documentary by The Source

© 2017 Aimee S


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    • Amie S profile imageAUTHOR

      Aimee S 

      3 years ago from Macondo

      Thanks greenmind

    • greenmind profile image

      GreenMind Guides 

      3 years ago from USA

      Great topic. HP needs more writers like you -- intelligent, clear-eyed, and able to put a sentence together.

    • Amie S profile imageAUTHOR

      Aimee S 

      3 years ago from Macondo

      Thanks, Janis. Glad you found the list useful.

    • janshares profile image

      Janis Leslie Evans 

      3 years ago from Washington, DC

      Thank you for this education on the Beat poets. Sounds like the dawn of spoken word and open mic. I hadn't heard of this genre title but feel familiar with this type of poetry. I did recognize Amiri Baraka. Very interesting and informative, well done.


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