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What Is Beat Poetry?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated May 23, 2024
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Beat poetry represents a style of writing from the mid-1950s and 1960s popular in Greenwich Village, New York, and San Francisco, California. It incorporates a free-form type of writing that promotes individualism and protests the loss of faith. A small group of bohemian authors and poets created beat poetry and became known leaders of the Beat Generation.

These writers were raised during the Great Depression in the United States and lived through World War II. They were disillusioned with their views of the postwar culture of conformity and materialism. Beat poetry laments the loss of personal values and faith, and promotes the belief that modern life is spiritually empty.

Some of the best-known beat poets include Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs. Some beat poetry written during this era was inspired by Zen Buddhism and the use of drugs to raise consciousness. The beat generation explored various forms of mysticism, which is evident in some of the poetry.

Many in the older generation at the time shunned themes in beat poetry, believing the poets were immoral and delinquent. Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” and Burrough’s book Naked Lunch both became subjects of obscenity trials, which essentially put this style of poetry into the limelight. Judges ruled neither poem was obscene.

Beat poetry was often recited orally. Members of the Beat Generation typically would gather at Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco to read poetry, usually accompanied by jazz. The bookstore became the main meeting place for young people who felt disillusioned and disappointed by the older generation. Many of the streets around the store were later named for the beat poets.

Some themes of the poetry center on liberation for black people, homosexuals, women, and Native Americans. It rails against censorship in any form, and promotes sexual freedom. This type of poetry represents an early effort to raise awareness of ecology and how humans harm the planet. It influenced the songs of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and other folk singers who became popular in the 1960s.

The Beat Generation is credited with inspiring the antiwar movement of the hippies in the 1960s and raising awareness of ecological issues. Some of these poems shun conformity and promote the decriminalization of marijuana, which might have influenced the popularity of drugs among hippies. They also may have helped lead to the women’s rights and gay rights movements.

Historians hold different views about why this style of writing was dubbed beat poetry. Some claim the writers felt beaten down and tired by the consumerism and lack of societal values. Others say beat poetry refers to the musical beat of jazz used in oral recitation. Still others claim Kerouac coined the term Beat Generation to describe his circle of friends.

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Discussion Comments

By Instion — On Dec 20, 2013
It's almost comical that the works of Ginsberg and Burroughs were once considered obscene, considering what pop culture become. Then again, people were still having hissy fits about the Miley Cyrus "twerk heard 'round the world" at the 2013 VMAs, so there's still plenty of criticism regarding what is and is not obscene.

You could also make Beat Generation comparisons with '90s grunge music--such musicians were *very* disillusioned with the world and their place in it! As Kurt Cobain famously sang, "I feel stupid and contagious."

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