“Beat” in the name “beat generation” and “beat poetry” arises from the colloquial usage of the word in post-WWII America. To be ‘beat’ is to be tired, exhausted and ‘finished with it’ and this encompasses one half of the movement itself. Beat Poetry is a counter-culture movement that tries to shine a light on the ‘negative’ influences on society that “polite society” will always try to hide beneath a veil, beneath the glittering veneer of smiles and white-picket fences. It goes to show that the hedonism of society still exists, and maybe it should sometimes be embraced. The purveyors of Beat Poetry were tired of the culture in which they lived; they were torn between two worlds. The one where society is painted in gold and the other where it is boiling in methamphetamines, no longer would they stay silent. They were exhausted, they were beat and they wanted someone to know about it. The second part of the movement rests in the beat itself. The beat of the drum, the rhythm and the blues – it cannot be denied that beat poetry was a large inspiration for many modern day music movements, especially the counter-culture music movements such as gangsta rap and heavy metal to name a few and the continued popularity of these movements shows that society has learned nothing from the post-modernist time period. There are still those desperately tired voices calling out for change and as Tupac Shakur raps in his song Changes, a contemporary example of Beat Poetry in which he underlines the ills of society and the attempts of those to cover them up, “and I still see no changes…”. The beat generation wants answers to the questions that keep them up at night, in feverish insomnia and cold sweats. After WWII they asked, “How are we to live?” We are still no closer to finding the answer to that question today.
If wearing shoes is culture then walking barefoot on glass is counter-culture. A system of being in which you take steps to deviate substantially from the norms laid forth by mainstream society. Creating a subcultures in their own rights, counter-cultures can even become great agents of societal change. The surge of romanticism in the early 1800’s and bohemianism in the early 1900’s were both counter-cultures that influenced society a great deal. Romanticism being one of the most important literary movements in history. The Beat Generation has become almost synonymous with counter-culture, to the point where you cannot speak about either without mentioning the former. In 1955 Allen Ginsburg wrote a 253 line poem titled Howl. Mirroring the pained moans of the beaten and exhausted, Ginsburg paints the quintessential beat poem. A bleak and dystopian atmosphere permeates the poem with faceless bodies shuffling through desolate streets intoxicated and hopeless like marionettes hanging on every line. Howl pulls no punches. It is intended to offend the polite society of the time, and with the subsequent legal case against Ginsburg and his poem, it is easy to see that he succeeded. More important however is how Ginsburg relies his experiences on to the reader. It is almost as if Ginsburg himself is leading you through the streets and the rooftops of this Gomorrahian city, the very same in which he and his friends live. These people in the poem, these “best minds of my generation” are members of the very same fringe culture in which Ginsburg belongs. He’s with these lost souls as he is with Carl Solomon – a writer who was institutionalised and later became friends with Ginsburg which Ginsburg writes about on the last several lines of the first part of the poem – in Rockland. Howl is for the beat generation and it is formed by the beat generation. Every second or third line is dedicated to Ginsburg’s ‘people’, in all of their hedonistic, sexual and drug-addled splendour, these people “who balled in the morning in the evenings in the rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may” (72 – 73), who “wept at the romance of the streets with their pushcarts full of onions and bad music” (99 – 100).
Howl is for the downtrodden, it is for those that were beaten and lied to and had promises broken. It is for everyone who was told “No! Not that way – do it like this instead.” It is for those that live on the fringes of society within their own extreme cultures where all religions meld into one – “who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angles staggering on tenement roofs illuminated” (7 – 8) – where drugs and sex are the only escape from the broken dreams and the disappointment – “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,…, illuminating all the motionless world of Time…” (19 – 21).
Howl is a crazed, rampant cry. A volatile mixture of pride and pity. It is both warrior’s roar and a call for help. Spirituallity, sexual liberation, drugs and alcohol, freedom, anti-capitalism and exploration of the self and the world around them are the key themes of beat poetry. Many of these themes would face harsh backlash in the USA in the 50’s but today in 2017 many of these are commonplace opinions or ideals people hold to. The normalisation of LGBTQ+ individuals in the media today would come to great shock people who lived in the 1950’s and the loss of stigma continues to grow but work still needs to be done to fully liberate society from gendered stereotypical roles. The rise of socialism in America especially in young people and minorities who believe capitalism and fascism go hand-in-hand and is a direct consequence of Donald Trump’s rise to presidency and his right-wing politics would likewise be heavily stigmatised in post-WWII America especially as the US geared their propaganda machines against communist Russia before the Cold War. What the beat generation stood for is more accepted now than ever. By and large more and more people are seeking progressive and liberal ways to live their lives. In fact, these socio-liberal themes have become so accepted that counter-cultures have been created in direct opposition. The rise of what is now being referred to as the “alt-right” is a clear example. An extremist philosophy that is gravely fascist and conservative. It is nationalistic, it is religiously stagnant and gravely anti-liberalism. This fringe culture would be in direct opposition to what the beat generation believed in.
“How are we to live” then? Should society embrace leftist ideals or ring-wing policies? At the second part of Howl, Ginsburg answers us by referring to the heathen god of the Sun and Fire: Moloch. A god infamously associated with child sacrifice. In Moloch, Ginsburg echoes what he sees as the evils in society in a maddening montage of imagery and colours. Ginsburg compares America to a child-devouring demon wreathed in flames. America is a capitalist monster. “Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!” (174 – 175). The American people are fearful and they grieve for their own lives. Ginsburg continues to compare the American prison system and congress with Moloch, “Moloch whose buildings are judgement!” (179 – 180) and criticises America for its warmongering, for its soulless factories and death-machine industries that are designed to spit out men and women when it is done with them. Ginsburg criticises the mass consumerism, “skeleton treasuries! Blind capitals!” (194) and laments on the fact that good people “broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven!” (196). Good people made America only for it to turn on them, leaving only one final option to escape from the solitude and the madness of escapism – the one final voyage away from the world. Out of a window and into the pavement. Society is evil, according to Ginsburg, Moloch can be seen everywhere. This ‘Moloch’ must be gotten rid of, or people will continue to kill themselves. Either that or they will go to Rockland, a state of madness or maybe even an insane asylum where Carl Solomon dwells and where he “[accuses his] doctors of insanity and [plots] the Hebrew socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha.” (235 – 236). Ginsburg’s answer is simple. An anarcho-socialist revolution must take place to overthrow “the fascist national Golgotha” – a state where capitalism, nationalism and religion take precedence over the people breaking their backs day in and day out to keep it all the way up in Heaven.
The ‘beatniks’, those involved in the beat generation, fuelled the counter-culture movements that followed them. The hippies, the punk-rockers, the goths, the NWA and those involved with gangsta rap, the followers of Heavy Metal and all members of the existing fringe cultures that look upon their status quo and ask “Why must things be thus?” and then ask “How should things be?” Non-conformity and the ‘questioning citizen’ is the legacy of the beat generation. Their poetry that spoke clearly and without filter about the underside of life is later scene in the emerging rap movements of the 80’s and 90’s and is still going strong today with multi-platinum selling artists like Kendrick Lamar continuing the message first proposed by the beat generation. Educated people should question their status quo and their government’s decisions. They should be aware of their country’s direction and they should be allowed to fight back against higher powers that aim to oppress them into oblivion).
The question is not whether beat generation poetry is relevant, and it is only growing more and more relevant as societal issues are placed front and centre through usage of news outlets and social media. The question is, is the world ready right now for the ‘beat revolution’? With the rise of socio-liberal movements, likewise come the counter-movements. Neo-fascist movements come to meet the outcry for liberalism with shields of conservation. Who is to say which side is correct when only time will tell. Perhaps the wave of right-wing disciples is simply a surging reaction, like antibodies and eventually the wave will break upon the shore of progress. Until the time when we can look back and see which side was right, I’ll be with you in Rockland. Waiting in my cottage in the Western night.