I love Beat writing. I remember the moment I was sitting in a uni tutorial and Allen Ginsberg’s America was studied… I’d never heard anything like it. In 93 lines my understanding of literature was systematically dismantled, and what opened before me was a world where normal words created a musicality that was beguiling. I was stunned by the revolution Beat writing heralded - a time in writing where nothing was sacred but the experience of life and the ‘journey’ of it took on spiritual significance.
If the term ‘Beat’ was first used to describe the movement because of the way it captured a post-war generation who were defeated, disappointed and out of sync with the rest of society, the etymology of the term explains why I had such a discordant reaction to Ginsberg’s work:
The term 'beat' has a second meaning: 'beatific' or sacred and holy. Kerouac, a devout Catholic, explained many times that by describing his generation as beat he was trying to capture the secret holiness of the downtrodden" - Beat Etymology.
At once, Beat writing is scruffy and ethereal, confronting and inspiring. There is beauty in the rough, so to speak.
It’s important to look at Beat writing not as something necessarily romantic, but as something raw and aggressively different. And rather than leaving it as merely a ‘cult’ type of literary expression confined to the 1950’s, let’s take from it some important lessons we writers can apply to our own modern works. We can be similarly fearless, experimental and countercultural.
1. Challenge societal (and literary) norms
So let’s start with Ginsberg’s 1956 poem America, and the way it brutally and unapologetically dismantles a culture marked by political and global unrest. Ginsberg personifies his country and holds a frantic discussion with it, where he tells his post-WWII country that it needs to get over its paranoia about Communism, homophobia, experimentation with weaponry, desire for affluence, and the almost puritan values embraced with the rise of McCarthyism. There’s a manic edge to his apostrophe as he addresses a nation that is letting his generation down:
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical
I'm trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
America stop pushing I know what I'm doing" - Allen Ginsberg.
I love this poem because of its daring. It challenges the things in society that Ginsberg wants changed with humour and honesty. The fact that he does this with enjambment, which makes his thoughts run freely - reinforcing the stream-of-consciousness candour that draws in his listeners, helps to question society as well as conventional literary structure. The way his narration switches from addressing America as a separate entity to actually becoming America keeps his audience guessing. It is an odd and unique style that helps to make his message memorable.
This poem still sits with me years later because of its originality, and as writers we need to think about how we can share important messages in innovative ways. Play with thought, play with structure, and think about how you can leave a lasting impact on your readers.
2. Experiment with technique
I’ve touched on this in my last point, but want to look at the concept of technique experimentation more closely by looking at Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. This is perhaps the quintessential Beat text, and it has captured the imaginations of generations of subsequent writers and readers.
It is perhaps the spontaneous and imperfect feel to the novel that has held the attention of his audiences over the years - a roughness rare in most literature. Joyce Johnson, a Beat-writing peer and sometime-lover of Kerouac, recalls his unconventional writing process:
On the January night in 1957 when we first met, I'd heard about Jack's homemade scroll—how he'd used it to break through to a new way of writing ("spontaneous bop prosody," Allen Ginsberg later called it) that enabled him to do the entire book in 20 days without stopping to put a new page in the typewriter and barely changing a word. "First thought, best thought," Jack told me sternly, after learning that I constantly revised my own writing" - Vanity Fair News 'Kerouac Unbound'.
Kerouac employs long sentences with minimal punctuation. He writes with a fever that dances through his paragraphs: it is both exhilarating and exhausting. He employs idioms that are particular to his culture and so disorients his broader audience. He speaks of the tangible but draws spiritual significance from it. In short, his unique technique is extraordinary:
They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn..." On the Road.
Breathless, eloquent, inimitable. Now I’m not saying that we should all write whole books in 20 days without much editing in order to be different. I’m just saying that we should try out new modes of writing and extend the zone of comfort in our own literature. Hazel Smith’s The Writing Experiment is an excellent resource for helping to broaden our writing boundaries.
3. Send a strong message
The Beats were known for challenging society in their works. There are plenty of texts out there that explore social issues, but I guess what we can take from the Beats is the way that they shared messages so strikingly they could not be ignored. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, Sometime During Eternity…, questions the place of formal religion in a destructive world:
Him just hang there
on His Tree
looking real Petered out
and real cool
according to a roundup
of late world news
from the usual unreliable sources
This is a concept that has been explored in many texts, but what is remarkable about Ferlinghetti’s poem is the way that he so casually undermines a universal symbol (the Cross) and questions its validity (the fact that he suggests that Jesus is ‘real dead’). Whether or not the reader agrees with Ferlinghetti’s message, his colloquial tone downplays a revered topic and sends a strong message.
Modern writers can take this principle and think about how we can also make our meaning arresting and unforgettable. You could take common images and challenge them, work your tone to question things that often aren’t, or use unusual scenarios to question meaning in ways that haven’t been commonly seen. Just make sure you know what your message is and think about ways to make it stay with your reader.
* * *
There is so much more we can take from the Beats; this is just the beginning. Read the works of writers like those listed above and William S Burroughs, Richard Brautigan and Neal Cassady in order gain a broad understanding of the mechanics of their writings, if for no other reason than to look at the world in a way never seen before – it’s both confronting and liberating.
- "Bob Dylan, the Beat Generation and Allen Ginsberg's America" in The New Yorker
- "This Is The Beat Generation" by John Clellon Holmes
- "What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation" by Jordan Larson