William Burroughs        Lawrence Ferlinghetti        Allen Ginsberg
Jack Kerouac        Gary Snyder

Beat Literature

Written by Associate Professor Sigmund Ro

Beat culture manifested itself in many different artistic media: film, theatre, visual art and literature. Its dominant form of expression was undoubtedly literature, not least poetry. Theirs was a romantic literary project: through a new kind of art the individual would be liberated and society made new. In the 1940s and 50s this meant doing battle with the prevailing T.S. Eliot inspired modernist hegemony in Academe and the culture industry, in particular the ever-expanding formalist New Criticism in colleges and universities. Against this the Beat writers pitted an alternative aesthetic, inspired by rebel artists such as William Blake, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Antonin Artaud and Charlie Parker. At the heart of the literary Beat movement was subjective, spontaneous expression – impulsive, direct, unedited. This resulted in diverse forms: Ginsberg’s long, rhythmical but unmetrical lines of verse, Kerouac’s ”spontaneous bop prose”, Burrough’s direct records of grotesque drug-induced fantasies, Ferlinghetti’s surreal wordplay. The writers often claimed the improvised solos of bebop musicians as their ideal. Other parallels are the spontaneous ”action paintings” of Jackson Pollock or the raw, impulsive acting of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Beat literature set out to break down the barriers between art and life, between ”high” and ”low” art, between genres and art forms, making poetry as direct an expression of personal experience as was possible, including the private and intimate. Not infrequently did they break traditional barriers by exploring tabooed worlds such as those of homoerotic practice, of drugs and psychosis. Many of the artists worked in two or more media, often fusing forms of expression in ”happenings” and different forms of multimedia events. On the west coast poets and musicians worked together, resulting in ”performances” where poetry and jazz were read and played in cafés and bars, on the street or in parks.

The highlights are undoubtedly Jack Kerouac’s and William S. Burroughs’ novels On the Road (1957) and Naked Lunch (1959). The most significant Beat poets are Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder. Ginsberg’s poem ”Howl” (1955) has long attained the status of a modern American classic, though it must be seen as part of Ginsberg’s vast production through fifty years. Snyder’s status has gradually risen, not least through his pioneer work as one of USA’s leading eco-poets. Ferlinghetti’s playful, at times surrealist verse has gained him a reputation as one of America’s most read poets. Behind these we find numerous others, younger writers from both the East and West coast, such as Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, and women writers such as Diane diPrima and Joyce Johnson.