Archives For Essays

Essays from the magazine.

I’m Watching You Watching Me: The Inversion of the Gaze in Ginsberg’s Photographs

“You never look at me from the place from which I see you.”

– Jacques Lacan

Introduction: The Photographs, The Beats, The Gaze

If we conceive of the photograph as something to be gazed at, what are the affects, then, if the gaze is inverted, and turned back onto its viewer? What happens when the viewer becomes the viewed? To explore these questions, I will analyze a series of five photographs that Allen Ginsberg took while travelling through Tangiers, Morocco, in 1961, from the University of Toronto archives. The photographs were donated by the Larry and Cookie Rossy Family Foundation of Montreal in January, 2014 and together compile the world’s largest collection of Ginsberg’s photographs, numbering 7,686. They are housed within the archives of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and the Art Centre. A selection of these images have been made publically accessible online through flickr and the Art Centre Online, and from which I am working from. Continue Reading…

Echoes of the Revolution: Diane di Prima and the Beat Generation

This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #17:

 

            “We are in the middle of a bloody, heartrending revolution / Called America, called the Protestant reformation, called Western man, / Called individual consciousness”

—Diane Di Prima “Rant, from a Cool Place”

The Beat Generation sought revolution on a number of levels: social, personal, political, and artistic. Periodically, a literary group, a counterculture, emerges that exists in stark contrast to the prevailing culture of its time. The Beats are a relatively recent manifestation of a recurring historical tendency including the Romantics and Transcendentalists rather than a discrete movement of singular occurrence. Since a comprehensive examination of the entire Beat movement within the context of revolution is difficult in a format of limited length, using a single author to illustrate the larger whole seems most appropriate. Additionally, focusing on a woman to discuss the entirety of the Beat movement is, while not quite revolutionary, decidedly different, possibly even subversive. As a Beat, a woman, and an artist, Diane di Prima considers revolution in all of its various manifestations and possibilities. Continue Reading…

Defining Beat: Era, Location, and the Importance of Considering Women

 

The Beat Generation, though small in numbers, had a profound effect on the American literary tradition. Coming into existence just after World War II, Beat writers sought to examine post-war capitalism and materialism, coupled with hints of Cold War anxiety. These writers were reacting to many of the high modernists, such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, attempting to reclaim literature from academics that often sounded pretentious, detached, and largely inaccessible; the works of Beat authors tend to be closer to confessional, intimate, and, in general, more in touch with the self. Due to the nature of their surrounding social circumstances, many of the Beat authors tended to have similar themes in their works: drug use, restlessness, sexual freedom, and, ultimately, a rebellion against social norms; however, these characteristics do not make a generation—Beat implies time and place as well, largely New York City and San Francisco in the 1950s. Though the “big” Beat authors are male—Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti—several female writers also existed in the Beat movement, including Diane di Prima and Joyce Johnson. In Johnson’s memoir Minor Characters, as well as di Prima’s collection of poetry, Pieces of a Song, and her memoir, Recollections of my Life as a Woman, Beat themes and locations are prevalent, similar to any of the other canonical Beat writers; therefore, di Prima and Johnson should be understood as Beat writers, offering female voices to a male-dominated movement. Continue Reading…

6 Places Where the Beats Hung Out

The world was a different place in post-war America. Suburbs were scant, malls were unheard of, and the nation was divided into either cities or farms. At that time, the group of writers known as the Beat Generation were just coalescing. They cavorted around the country in beat-up jalopies, smoking “tea” and getting drunk off of jazz and life. Although it may seem like an entirely different world, some of the establishments that birthed their creative spark are still in existence: Continue Reading…

The Beats Gave Birth to Modern Hipsters

The generally accepted definition of the word “hipster” in 2017 is a young, non-traditional, counter-culture person who is an independent thinker, believes in progressive politics, and appreciates art and underground music. Typically, it has a pejorative slant. It refers to people who like to think of themselves as trend-setters, but are actually slaves to fashion as much as anyone – if not more so than the rest of us.

Continue Reading…

When was ‘Beat’ First Written?

On this blog, we’ve previously discussed the surprisingly difficult question of what the Beat Generation was, and later, what the difference is between Beats and Beatniks. Yet actually pinning down the meaning of the word “Beat,” an adjective used by the likes Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs in the forties and fifties, is not so difficult. Its etymology is well-documented – although, as with so much Beat lore, there are numerous errors in popular sources. It originated in “hepcat” speak, most likely passed from the underground world to the Columbia world through Herbert Huncke. Continue Reading…

Buddhists and Dharma Bums

Sometime in the early 1950s, the Beat Generation helped bring Buddhism to the West, or at least they popularized it and expanded its influence. The world saw them as obscene hipsters who eschewed responsibility, but they viewed themselves as roamers of America and characters of a special spirituality.[1] At least for Kerouac and Ginsberg, Beat had a quasi-religious connotation.

Continue Reading…

The Flying Dutchman:

An Overview of LeRoi Jones’ Greatest Commentary on the Struggle of the Black Man and Racial Relations in Post-World War America

Before Amiri Baraka changed his name, he was LeRoi Jones: poet, playwright, and husband to Hettie Cohen, a white Jewish woman. Together LeRoi and Hettie edited the avant-garde literary magazine Yugen, which later published such literary icons as the Beat Generation’s Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The couple’s relationship strained as Jones fell in with the ideology of Malcolm X, breaking away from the Beat Generation and into movements such as Black Nationalism and the Black Arts Movement. Baraka’s play Dutchman, written as LeRoi Jones, opened at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City on March 24, 1964 to intriguing acclaim for an off-Broadway production. This initial production sparked the beginning of Baraka’s revolutionary immersion into Black Nationalism, political theatre, and the eventual name change from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka. Dutchman examines race relations in post-World War America and also commentates on the relationship between white women and black men and the implicit stereotypes presented. Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman presents the suffering of the Black man in America in order to emphasize an illicit political agenda that caters to Black Nationalism. Continue Reading…

World Citizen: How Politics Shaped the Travels of Allen Ginsberg, and How Travel Shaped his Politics

This essay first appeared in Beatdom #17, which you can find on Amazon.

As a child, Allen Ginsberg didn’t get to travel much; however, that wasn’t particularly unusual. Although the motorcar was becoming popular with the middle classes around the time he was born, and would boom in popularity during his childhood, most travel was still conducted within a relatively short distance of the family home. Route 66 was established five months after Ginsberg’s birth, connecting Chicago with California, and making it possible for Americans to drive across the continent, but due to the Great Depression and World War II, intercity car travel actually decreased between 1930 and 1944. Great leaps in transportation were making the world a smaller place, but young Allen only travelled as far as Belmar Beach, in New Jersey during his childhood. His father, Louis, didn’t travel abroad until 1967 – 19 years after his son’s first steps on foreign soil.

How, then, did he end up becoming such a renowned traveler, visiting almost 60 countries and visiting every continent except Antarctica?[1] Continue Reading…

How the Beats Influenced Today’s Literary Hipsters

The Beat Generation as a whole inhabits a polarized yet celebrated space in American literature. Writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs pursued lives of meaning and raw authenticity, and created art that defined their generation and changed American literature and culture. They found truth in the visceral and unapologetic prose poetry that they would eventually create. It is hard to define Beat literature, yet one can observe in the work of many Beat artists an absolute openness. The Beats shocked and appalled mainstream America and stuffy critics by saying what they felt and what they did without shame. Continue Reading…