The Beat Generation was not just important as a countercultural movement. We don’t just remember Jack Kerouac for sending kids on the road and accidentally birthing the hippies, or Allen Ginsberg for his peace & love messages. We remember them as literary innovators, and as such they have a lot to teach us about writing. Literature changed with the Beat Generation and it has never been the same since. Yet as time goes by, it is easy to forget what exactly they gave us. Let’s take the chance to look over some of the writing lessons handed down by the Beat writers.
William S. Burroughs
Let’s start with the old man of the group – the one who turned his younger friends on to Celine and Spengler, whose work was hugely influential on the other Beats. Sure, Burroughs was not much of a writer as a young man and famously only got truly into writing after the death of Joan Vollmer. But when he did, he took to it with aplomb. First it was just “routines” that appeared in letters to friends, and then he was into the “cut-ups.”
Burroughs’ “routines” were products of his bizarre imagination. As a form of therapeutic release, he would act out bizarre fantasies for his friends, in which certain characters like the nefarious Dr. Benway would appear. These strange and often repulsive stories (if they could even be called that, as many of them lacked elements like plot or character development) ended up forming a giant manuscript from which Naked Lunch and other books were culled.
Naked Lunch was published in 1959 and banned in the United States for its obscene content. However, Burroughs was in Paris at the time and was more concerned with a new discovery. Through the painter Brion Gysin, Burroughs stumbled upon a technique called “The Cut-Up Method.” This involved taking texts (whether you’ve written them yourself or just found them elsewhere) and literally cutting into them with a knife or scissors. The texts are then pieced back together in new ways. Burroughs believed that these new combinations yielded not just interesting results, but prophetic ones. He would use this technique for several of his next books.
Kerouac was a prolific writer, hammering out novels in barely a few days at his typewriter in marathon writing sessions fueled by Benzedrine. Truman Capote famously dismissed this by saying: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Yet although Kerouac had his fair share of detractors, history has remembered him as a true innovator, in no small part due to the work of Allen Ginsberg in teaching Kerouac’s significance.
So what was Kerouac’s innovation?
He is best known for his “spontaneous prose.” Essentially, this meant writing quickly and almost unconsciously, without any call for editing. Although Kerouac did allow for some editing of his work (by himself and others), he often claimed that editing only weakened a text and that it was far better to keep it in its pure state. Burroughs had a similar concept, although he referred to it as “automatic writing” and believed the words came from space, whereas Kerouac was instead writing from the heart without the interference of the brain.
Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing
Although he is best-known for his prose works like On the Road and Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s poetry was also tremendously influential. He was not much for writing essays, however.
Kerouac’s poetry was important to Allen Ginsberg, who years later co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and taught Kerouac’s methods to his students there at Naropa. Ginsberg may have become the far more important poet, but it is possible that without Kerouac’s influence, he may never have found his own voice. In tracing his own poetic development, Ginsberg cited poems he wrote that were clearly and heavily inspired by Kerouac’s “sketching” technique, blended with lessons he’d taken from William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane, among others.
Eventually, after a period of travelling in Mexico and (briefly) Cuba, Ginsberg found his own voice, inspired by but free from his influences, and wrote his classic poem, “Howl.” First read aloud at the Six Gallery Poetry Reading in San Francisco, “Howl” became one of the most important English language poems and spawned countless imitations. Yet what made it great? Why did it, and not some other poem, capture a generation and enter the culture? Ginsberg’s poetry had managed to capture the voice of his peers as well as their stories. It was also deeply confessional, as was his next great poem, “Kaddish,” an elegy for his mother.
Ginsberg’s poetry was always developing. He was not the sort of poet to develop a single style and stick with it. Rather, he found new ways of stating ideas and even adopted new technologies as they appeared. One of his key ideas was to remove as many seemingly unnecessary words from the text as possible, taking “out a lot of syntactical fat” and leaving the barebones to state the message more clearly.
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