By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Beat Poets were an important movement in American poetry in the 1950s and 1960s. Favouring free verse and spontaneous writing in many cases, poets of the Beat Generation sought a more direct and authentic poetic voice. Many of the Beats felt a great sense of disillusionment in the immediate post-war years, and their poetry reflects this mood.
The origin of the term ‘Beat’, which gave us ‘Beatnik’ (hence Beatnik poems), is shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. Was it derived from the African-American term meaning ‘tired’ or ‘beaten down’? Or was it, as Jack Kerouac suggested, a contraction of the word ‘beatific’ suggesting some kind of blessed epiphanic experience?
Wherever the term ‘Beat’ truly originated, it’s true that the 1950s was, in many ways, the decade of the Beatnik poets. Below, we select and introduce ten of the best poems by Beat-era poets who were associated with the movement.
1. Jack Kerouac, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity.
This 1960 work is not just one poem, but a series or ‘sutra’ (‘thread’) of 66 poems. Kerouac is a key figure in Beatnik literature, of course, but he’s best-known for his novel On the Road. However, this book of poems is a sequence of prose poems, experimental and free-wheeling, on Buddhist philosophy. The ‘Golden Eternity’, in Kerouac’s poems, is both everything and nothing.
2. Gregory Corso, ‘Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway’.
Corso (1930-2001) was perhaps the least-known major poet of the Beat generation, but he was one of the most technically accomplished, whether he was working in traditional forms or experimenting with the ‘cut-up’ method pioneered by William Burroughs.
In ‘Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway’, we get a sense of this, as the two poets on the open road converse in statements which don’t appear to bear in relation to each other. The poem is confusing and dizzying, arranged erratically on the page to suggest the oddness of the poets’ dialogue.
3. Philip Whalen, ‘If You’re So Smart Why Ain’t You Rich?’.
Whalen (1923-2002) once described poetry as ‘brain candy’, and his work is intellectually demanding – and satisfying. In this 1955 poem, Whalen pioneered his cut-and-paste method which would be a defining feature of his work from the ‘Beat era’.
4. Jonathan Williams, ‘Two Pastorals for Samuel Palmer at Shoreham, Kent’.
Williams (1929-2008) founded his own publisher, the Jargon Press, and was a graduate of the famous Black Mountain College. Indeed, Williams is associated with the Black Mountain poets as much as he is with the Beat movement.
‘Two Pastorals for Samuel Palmer’ sees Williams celebrating a Victorian painter, Samuel Palmer, in a piece of ekphrasis: that is, poetry inspired by, or written about, visual art.
5. Amiri Baraka, ‘Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note’.
Born Le Roi Jones, Baraka (1934-2014) was associated with Kerouac and Ginsberg in the 1950s, hence his inclusion here among the Beat poets; he was also an important African-American voice during the civil rights era.
This poem, the title poem from his 1961 collection, reflects Baraka’s relationship to the Beat poets, and to other white poets of the era.
6. Paul Carroll, ‘The Cigar Store Indian’s Gift to the Puritans’.
Carroll (1926-96) is associated with the Chicago poets as much as the Beatniks; but his links with Beat literature deserve to be noted. As editor of the Chicago Review in the late 1950s, he tried to publish excerpts from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and resigned from the magazine when the university chancellor insisted the excerpts be removed from the issue. Carroll would go on to publish several Beat writers, including Kerouac and Ginsberg.
In this short poem, we are taken back to the early days of colonial America.
7. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, ‘A Coney Island of the Mind’.
Ferlinghetti was one of the most high-profile poets associated with the Beat movement, although he is perhaps more famous as a publisher of Beatnik literature; his poetry is sometimes included in anthologies of Beatnik poetry, but he himself denied that he was a ‘Beat poet’. He lived a long life: born in 1919, he died in 2021, aged 101.
‘A Coney Island of the Mind’ (1958) is a sequence of poems, although it can also be viewed as one long poem. It is, at bottom, a poem about the human condition, taking in everything from Goya’s art to Dante’s poetry. You can read a section from the longer work by following the link provided above.
8. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, ‘Dog’.
Since he was such an important figure in Beat literature, we have included two Ferlinghetti poems on this list. And this one, ‘Dog’, from 1958 is one of his most anthologised. The poem adopts a dog’s-eye view of the street, the poem’s lines breaking up and becoming more haphazard on the page as the dog’s journey continues.
9. Allen Ginsberg, ‘A Supermarket in California’.
The expansive, liberating force of Walt Whitman’s pioneering free verse was a key influence on Allen Ginsberg (1926-97), probably the most famous of all the Beatnik poets.
And in this poem, one of Ginsberg’s best-known, the Beat poet goes ‘shopping for images’ for his own poetry, his head full of thoughts of Walt Whitman; the year Ginsberg wrote his poem, 1955, was the centenary of the initial publication of Whitman’s landmark volume, Leaves of Grass.
10. Allen Ginsberg, Howl.
A classic poem – indeed, probably the classic poem – of the ‘Beat Generation’, active in the 1950s. The poem, which Ginsberg wrote in August 1955, came to summarise, and epitomise, the mood of post-war America and the feelings of countless members of the young generations growing up in that decade.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who published the poem, was arrested for obscenity, thus further raising the profile of the poem, which is regarded by some critics as the most significant American poem published since T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in 1922. (Ferlinghetti was found not guilty because the poem was protected by the First Amendment.)