Term Paper, 2003
18 Pages, Grade: 1
2. The Beat Generation
3. A Beat icon
4. Literary inspirations
5. The prophecy of a visionary poet
7. Works cited
Allen Ginsberg’s reputation as a major poet is now secure; he has outlived the other major poets of mid-century with whom he is frequently compared, such as Charles Olson, Robert Lowell, and Frank O’Hara, who with Ginsberg make up a core of writers that revolutionized the writing of American verse in the 1950s. […] Each of these major writers gave to the main currents of verse his own unique voice and intelligence, but it was Ginsberg especially who seems to have awakened America’s youth to the powers of poetry to make stirring prophecies and to reinvigorate the spheres of politics and ideology (Christensen 215).
Allen Ginsberg was part of the Beat generation, a group of young authors, among them Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and John Clellon Holmes, who created a new and unconventional kind of literature. Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” is the most popular example of the innovative and provocative writing this group produced. Whereas Robert Lowell and other confessional poets wrote about their lives in a need to confess what was on their minds, Ginsberg went one step further and confessed the sins of a whole generation. “Howl” is a combination of autobiography , apocalyptic vision, catharsis, and prophecy.
So what makes Allen Ginsberg and his poetry special? How was it possible that he awakened America’s youth and reinvigorated the political spheres? Why is his reputation as a major poet secure? How did he revolutionize poetry? In which way can he be called a prophet? And if he indeed was a prophet of his times, is his literary work consequently poetry or prophecy?
In my paper, I will discuss by which means Ginsberg and his poetry gain prophetic character. Therefore, I will first explain the goals of the Beat generation and how the term ‘beat’ was coined. Second, I will describe Ginsberg’s position in the Beat movement. Furthermore, I will show how he was the prototype of a Beat writer, and how he became the guru of America’s youth. Then, I will illustrate some explanations as to why Ginsberg can be considered to be the prophet of his times. For that reason, I will demonstrate his tone of voice when reading “Howl” and try to find a literary concept for his poetry. Moreover, I will depict his literary inspirations. Finally, I will analyze the three parts of “Howl” with regard to its rhythm and imagery.
The young writers of the Beat movement turned against conservative America and refused to conform to social rules and conventions. “[The Beat Generation was], undoubtedly, a remarkable social phenomenon: part of a decade that seemed suddenly to have invented adolescence and rebellion (Gray 299).” They were absolutely anti-establishment, and therefore turned against the conformism that dominated the American society in the 1950s and 1960s. The members of the group propagated an alternative lifestyle: most of them were homosexual, they did drugs and had wild parties, hence, they crossed many legal and moral boundaries. They all shared an interest in Eastern philosophy, for example Zen Buddhism. In their literature, the authors of the Beat movement spoke up against the capitalist machinery that reigned the life in the United States at that time.
In autumn 1955, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, and others held a poetry reading at the City Lights Bookshop on Six Gallery in San Francisco. Ginsberg’s reading of his poem “Howl” was the highlight of the evening and many critics say that this event marked the beginning of a new literary era. Michael McClure, who also read his poetry this evening remembers how everybody felt that they had witnessed the birth of a new kind of poetry:
In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before.. we had gone beyond a point of no return—and we were ready for it, for a point of no return. […] We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision… (www.english.uiuc.edu).
The poetry of Ginsberg and the prose of Jack Kerouac, who rose to international fame with his novel On the road, defined the literature of the Beat generation. The term ‘beat’, however, defines more than a literary genre - it defines a lifestyle. The expression ‘beat’ seems to have been coined by Kerouac, and the term has several connotations. Musically speaking, keeping the beat suggests to be in harmony with others.
More specifically, it implies the jazz beat: beat poetry is, as one of the group has termed it, ‘typewriter jazz’, aimed at catching the abrupt syncopated rhythms, the improvisational dash […] of jazz. In a social, psychological and vaguely political sense, ‘beat’ connotes the ‘beaten’ condition of the outsider, who is down perhaps, but certainly not out. Like so many Romantic and American writers, the beats cherished the stance of the alienated, the dispossessed and even the nominally insane: those who look at normal ‘square’ society from the periphery and reject its discipline and codes. […] Finally, in a spiritual sense, ‘beat’ is related to beatitude and describes the […] pursuit of ‘visionary consciousness’ through music or meditation, drugs, mantras, or poems (Gray 299).
All the connotations of the term ‘beat’ that are described above are reflected in Ginsberg’s personality and writing. One can say that, while his poetry was the model of Beat poetry, he as a person is the prototype of a Beat writer.
Like most of the Beats, Ginsberg was interested in jazz music. The influence of jazz can thus be detected in all of his poetry, which can be called ‘typewriter jazz’ (s.a.). The lines of his poems are not structured according to traditional (European) meter, but according to unconventional rhythm.
The rhythm, meter and length of verse was […] more similar to jazz music than it was to traditional European styles. […] Ginsberg fancied himself a poet in the style of a bebop musician because he lengthened the poetic line to fit the length of his own breath, paused for air, and launched another line, sometimes starting with the same word as the last line (Janssen).
Consequently, the line length in Ginsberg’s poetry is determined by the natural speech rhythm, which is established by the poet’s breath. Ginsberg worked on this idea after Kerouac explained to him how a jazz musician improvises.
A jazz musician, Kerouac observed – and especially a saxophone player when improvising – is ‘drawing in a breath and blowing a phrase… till he runs out of breath, and when he does, his sentence, his statement has been made’ (Gray 301).
So a line is not only a breath unit, but also a thought unit. Ginsberg wanted to imitate the process of composing by using a natural speech rhythm, and through the imitation of composition, he created spontaneity.
“[…A]ctually the mind breaks that you go through in composing are the natural speech pauses: after all, natural speech pauses indicate mind-breaks. […I]t is a kind of natural speech rhythm that comes when you’re speaking slowly, interestedly to a friend. With the kind of breaks that are hesitancies waiting for the next thought to articulate itself. […] When I get up and read those units I just make believe I’m trying to think of the next phrase. And then I come out with the next phrase. […A]nd so it leaves the mind of the reader hovering with mine, with the next spurt (Ginsberg,Composed on the tongue19 f.).
Imitated spontaneity or spontaneous speech was first brought to Ginsberg by Kerouac’s prose that gave him examples of “frank talk” (cf. Baym 2633). He also started carrying around a notebook to record the voices around him so he could document the American speech rhythm. He said that under the influence of Kerouac he began to write in the “long tumbling lines that were to become his trademark” (Baym 2633). So Ginsberg combined the ideas of jazz improvisations with free verse and the long line, which he “learned as well from biblical rhetoric as from Blake, Whitman, and Christopher Smart (Baym 2633).”
[…] a technique of expression that fundamentally subverted calculated choice and revision of words, a technique which the Beats saw as a means of opposing a calculating and regimented society. In creating an unrevised and spontaneous art, they believed that one declared his personal freedom in the very forms and structures he chose (Christensen 219).
When we take a look at the alienated Ginsberg in his young years, we find the connection to another connotation of the term ‘beat’. He is the outsider beaten down by society and with the writing of “Howl”, he looks at it from the outside (s.a.). Already Ginsberg’s youth was not quite that of normal child. He grew up among two extremes: his bourgeois father was a credited poet and his mother an active communist, who was later hospitalized because she was paranoid about persecution by the government. Ginsberg himself had to struggle with all this, and moreover, he “trespassed in thought at least the taboo of homosexuality as an adolescent, for which he was to feel the deepest guilt during the next several years at Columbia (Christensen 217).” Discovering his homosexual feelings was certainly not easy for Ginsberg– after all, he grew up in the 1950s. Accordingly, he felt guilty. It was therefore only after the dean of students at Columbia caught him in bed with Keroauc that he openly lived out his homosexuality. Kerouac as well as Burroughs were his literary mentors, and he felt more and more uncomfortable at Columbia as he could not identify with the schedule. After a year of suspension that was imposed on him because he had been scrawling obscene things in the dust of the dorm window and then been caught in bed with Keroauc, he later dropped out of ‘square’ Columbia. So only Ginsberg’s official education took place in Columbia, Burroughs and Kerouac had a greater influence on him. They not only taught him the literature of Dostoevski, Kafka, Rimbaud, and others, they also introduced him to the New York underworld of drugs, crime, and gay hangouts.
All these experience surely shaped Ginsberg to become the extraordinary young poet he was at the time of publication of “Howl”. William Carlos Williams wrote in the introduction to Howl and other poems:
When he was younger and I was younger, I used to know Allen Ginsberg, a young poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, where he, son of a well-known poet, had been born and grown up. He was physically slight of build and mentally much disturbed by the life which he had encountered about him during those first years after the first world war as it was exhibited to him in and about New York City. […] Now he turns up fifteen or twenty years later with an arresting poem. Literally he has, from all the evidence, been through hell (www.english.uiuc.edu).
So only after having been through “hell” he was able to write such an intense wake-up call for his generation. Ginsberg himself had experienced what he was writing about now from the “periphery”, as the beaten poet, who was “down perhaps, but certainly not out” (s.a.). And he definitely rejected the codes and conventions of the ‘square’ society and took part in demonstrations against wars, severe drug laws and laws against homosexuality.
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