The Beat Generation

The most prominent of the groups presented in Allen's anthology was certainly the Beats, who had attracted attention through their poetry readings -in particular the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco. Though the San Francisco Bay area had been a site ofimportant avant-garde activity since the mid-1940s, it was the Six Gallery reading that brought together East Coast writers of the Beat Generation (Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso) with West Coast poets such as Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Philip Lamantia. The reading accomplished two important things. First, as Paul Hoover has argued, it "galvanized media interest in a variety of alternative poetries"1 which could now challenge the dominant New Critical mode. And second, it introduced the concept of poetry as public performance at a time when poetry was seen primarily as a form of written literature meant to be experienced in private study or contemplation.

To understand the symbolic importance of the "Six Poets at the Six Gallery" reading, we need to realize how radically different it was from the kind of formal, academic readings that were then (and remain today) the norm on college and university campuses. The gallery itself - a converted auto-repair shop which had been set up as a kind of informal theater -was hardly a traditional venue for poetry readings. While Ginsberg read "Howl," performing it more like an orgiastic chant than a traditional poem, Kerouac cheered him on by yelling "Go!" at the end of each line. The poem began with powerful lines that would have grabbed the attention of the audience: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix." Ginsberg's use of long Whitmanic lines, his stark presentation of contemporary urban life, and his unique synthesis of surrealist imagery, visionary proclamation, and political invective made the poem unlike anything that had been heard before. The "generation" that Ginsberg's poem represented felt alienated from much ofAmerican life, and it was "Howl" more than any other poem of the era which captured that spirit of alienation.

The poetry of the Beats took a number of forms, reflecting a range of influences from the poetry ofWhitman, Blake, Pound, and Williams to Surrealism and Buddhist philosophy. The Beats also embraced the musical forms of jazz and blues, which helped them develop experimental techniques involving spontaneity and unpredictability. Like the confessionals, the Beats were responding to the alienating social and ideological structure ofAmerica during the Cold War, but their response was framed in very different terms: where the psychic violence of confessional poems was directed inward and largely contained by the use of traditional forms and language, the poetry of the Beats was more outwardly defiant and countercultural, the "howl" of a generation of cultural outlaws. The mainstream literary establishment -which celebrated the work of the confessionals as a socially acceptable expression of personal and social angst - found it more difficult to accept the work of the Beats, which made no concession to traditional codes of language or social behavior.

In May 1957, a few months after the publication of Howl, the book's publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was charged with publishing and selling an obscene book. The obscenity trial that ensued brought national attention to Ginsberg, to Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore, and to the Beat movement as a whole: by the end of the trial, more than ten thousand copies were in print, making the book a bestseller by the standards of American poetry.

In the trial, Ferlinghetti defended Ginsberg's poetry against the charge of obscenity, claiming that it not the poet but American society which was obscene. In October, Judge Clayton Horn ruled that the book was not obscene because, although it included "coarse and vulgar language" and presented "unorthodox and controversial ideas," it was not without "redeeming social importance." Clearly, lines like "who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy" would have been offensive to many readers, as would references to distributing "Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square," "whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars," or taking a variety of illegal drugs including peyote, marijuana, and heroin.

But what is most striking about "Howl" is less the targeted offensiveness of its material than the originality of its language. As Fred Moramarco and William Sullivan suggest, the poem represents "the first important poetic use of the American hip vernacular," while at the same time intensifying its vision through the use of startling combinations of words: "angelheaded hipsters," "hotrod-Golgotha jail-solitude watch," "hydrogen jukebox," "bop kaballa."2 Ginsberg achieved brilliant effects of sound within phrases such as "shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo"; or he created chains of images as in "Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns . . . storefront boroughs of tea-head joyride neon blinking traffic light." Finally, he organized the poem through the use of anaphora, creating the feeling of a Whitmanic chant. The first section is built around a series of actions by him and the members of his generation; the second is constructed around the actions of"Moloch," the Canaanite fire god who symbolizes a merciless postwar society to which the nation's youth is being sacrificed; and the third section deals with Carl Solomon, the young poet to whom the poem is dedicated and whose madness and incarceration in a series of mental hospitals ("I'm with you in Rockland") is the result of that society.

Neither Ginsberg nor any of the other Beats were able to replicate the extraordinary success of "Howl." Though Ginsberg was to write a number of memorable poems — including "America," "A Supermarket in California," "Kaddish," and "Wichita Vortex Sutra" - none of them matched the power and originality of "Howl," and the continuing notoriety he achieved in the ensuing decades was more the result of his social and political activities than of the new poems he was writing. When he died in 1997, Ginsberg was the most famous poet in America and the most easily recognizable poet in the world; as a serious poet who nonetheless achieved and maintained a public status, he was a unique figure among American poets of his time.

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Helping Your Child Learn To Read

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