Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
What’s Happening in the 1950s?
World War II ended in 1945. America entered the 1950s to find a newfound wave of economic growth and prosperity—but also a heap of social and political change. With the Baby Boom came the creation of modern-day suburbia and an economic boost. The Civil Rights Movement picked up with cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and Rosa Park’s famous refusal to give up her bus seat. The Korean War as well as The Cold War took place. It’s against this backdrop that the Beat Poets emerged.
Quick Facts About Beat Poetry:
- Beat poetry started out in the 1940s in New York City, though the heart of the movement was in San Francisco in the 1950s.
- The Beat Poets were interested in challenging main stream culture and conventional writing styles and techniques.
- Free Verse was the preferred form of the Beat Poets.
- Favorite topics of the Beats? Transgression, obscenity, and alienation, which isn’t too surprising given that the center of their movement was about breaking with main stream culture.
- Jazz was a major influence on the Beat Poets. Its improvisation and rhythmic qualities match up well with their own musical use of free verse.
- The Beats were often inspired by Buddhism, hallucinogenic drugs, and higher consciousness.
- As you may imagine, the Beats were political poets. Many were interested in the idea of anarchy. Again, this isn’t too surprising, since their main goal was challenging the order of main stream society. They also employed cross-cultural ideas in both their poetry and their political views.
- Jack Kerouac is said to have coined the term “Beat generation” when “describing the down-and-out status of himself and his peers during the post-war years” (poets.org).
The Major Beat Poets
- Ginsberg is undoubtedly one of the most well-known and prominent of the Beat Poets. His 112 line poem, “Howl”, was considered obscene at the time, which lead to the arrest its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The case went to trial, but eventually, “Howl” triumphed in its challenge to the obscenity laws of the day. It ended up a manifesto of sorts for the Beat Poets. Looking for more information on Ginsberg? Check out The Poetry Foundation’s biography.
- Poems To Read: Obviously, you’ll want to read “Howl”. But if you’re looking for something shorter, you should check out “A Supermarket in California”.
- Snyder got his start with the Beats in the 1950s. His work focuses on blending reality with spirituality and inner insight. He was particularly inspired by his practice of Zen Buddhism. For more information on Snyder, check out this interview he did with The Paris Review.
- Poem To Read: I really enjoy “The Berry Feast,” which was read along with “Howl” at the famous 1955 Six Gallery reading that launched the Beats to literary fame.
- Ferlinghetti is famous for starting the City Lights Books Shop, magazine, and publishing company, which became known as the heart of the Beat movement. He is also the author of more than thirty books of poetry. To say this man is merely productive would be an understatement. You can find out more about Ferlinghetti’s contributions to the Beat movement and poetry in this article.
- Poems To Read: Personally, I like “In Golden Gate Park That Day . . .” and “I Am Waiting.”
- Allen Ginsberg described him as an “awakener of youth.” He arrived in San Francisco just as the Beat movement was really taking off, and was quickly taken in and identified as a major player. Find out more about Corso here.
- Poem To Read: I think Corso’s “Transformation & Escape” has some really great imagery.
William S. Burroughs
- Although William S. Burroughs is better known for his works of fiction like Naked Lunch, he also took part in the Beat poetry movement.
- Poems To Read: “Dead Whistle Stop Already End” is so interesting visually—it’s a great example of the break with traditional form. I also like “Where Flesh Circulates”.
- While everyone knows Jack Kerouac best for works of fiction such as On the Road, he too took part in Beat poetry, especially the spoken word movement. He was very influenced by Jazz rhythms in his free verse.
- Poems To Read: It’s fairly difficult to find a decent text version of Kerouac’s poetry online, but you can find readings and excerpts of his work on this page.
The City Lights Books Shop that Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded is still a hub of literary activity in San Francisco. If you’re looking for a road trip, make the trek to visit City Lights. While you’re out there, check out The Beat Museum (also in San Francisco) for more information on the Beat poets and some awesome events. The Beat Poets initiated a social change that has been felt for generations. They challenged main stream society, set the foundation for ‘60s counterculture, and forever changed the way we view poetry with their nontraditional forms, urban and spiritual imagery, and counterculture themes.
- History.com: http://www.history.com/topics/1950s
- Poets.org: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/brief-guide-beat-poets
- The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/glossary-term/beat%20poets