Archives For Essays

Essays from the magazine.

From Fitzgerald’s Green Light to Thompson’s Wave

Hunter S. Thompson is one of those literary figures who, like the Beat Generation writers, divides opinion. His controversial books inspired legions of fans, and more than a few critics. As with the Beats, Thompson is often viewed as an outsider and a rebel; his contributions to the literary canon seen merely as a quirky commentary on a weird stage in American culture. Even among those who admire his work, there is no real consensus on what exactly made him great. Continue Reading…

‘The Personal is Political’[1]

The moves of Beat women to reclaim bodily freedom and space through performative poetry

‘The woman’s body is the terrain on which patriarchy is erected.’ (Rich, Of 55)

 

In 1950s post-war America, women’s opportunities were largely confined to the domestic realm. Western society was ‘a culture of containment, with women and black people its objects’ (Breines 10). Omnipotent sexism ensured that ‘all women – shall remain under male control’ (Rich, Of 13), and ‘in the most fundamental and bewildering of contradictions’ society has ultimately alienated women from their bodies by ‘incarcerating us in them’ (13). Women’s bodies are misunderstood and repressed in patriarchal society, but the Beat women fought against these misconceptions through choosing to live outside of society’s ideals and exploring pre-patriarchal femininity in their poetry. In exploring the ‘authentic’ self, they could re-establish new modes of being female outside of cultural rules. They negotiated the body and the spirit in Diane di Prima’s sense of materialising the spirit so that it ‘fills everything’ (Calonne 44). In this way, the personal becomes political as their self is embodied and extended to public space through their performance of poetry. Although not all Beat women were able to publicise their poetry as the more well known Beats Anne Waldman and di Prima were, it is important to examine how they re-imagined their bodily potential and their given space through a creation of a female-identified poetic voice. For, ‘the only war that matters is the war against the imagination / All other wars are subsumed in it’ (di Prima, ‘Revolutionary…’, 34-35). Continue Reading…

Allen Ginsberg in Asia

Asia had long been a source of inspiration and fascination for Allen Ginsberg by the time he finally set foot on the continent. As a precocious child, he had been curious about the great ancient kingdoms of India and China, and equally delighted in reading about the contemporary political climate of the region as he moved into his teenage years. Walt Whitman, one of his major literary inspirations, had impressed him deeply with a poem called “Passage to India.” His friendship with William S. Burroughs, begun at Columbia in 1944, pushed him to believe in Oswald Spengler’s theory of western decline, with Asia rising in the east to supplant the falling empires of the west, and later Jack Kerouac introduced Allen to Buddhism, which friends like Gary Snyder and Phillip Whalen subsequently nurtured t as it grew in the late fifties. In 1953, he developed an obsession with Asian art that grew into a belief that the ancient East possessed an unrivalled sophistication. Continue Reading…

Mechanics And Poetics: William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg

William Carlos Williams played an important part in making “Howl” a well-known poem, especially in terms of communication. Indeed, William Carlos Williams wrote an introduction for the poem, in which he admitted that Allen Ginsberg “disturbed”[1] him. Allen Ginsberg wrote many times to his relatives and friends how glad he was to have a poet he admired writing him an introduction. But while Ginsberg was thrilled, writing to his brother, Eugene, in 1956 that “W.C.Williams has written another introduction”[2] or to his father that “W.C.Williams read “Howl” and liked it”,[3] Williams himself was more cautious. First of all, this introduction is “strange” because, according to Barry Miles, “it read almost as if he were confusing Allen Ginsberg with someone else”.[4] Moreover, though we learn in a 1952 letter to Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady that Williams contacted Random House about Ginsberg’s poetry,[5] he wrote about his poems that “the first look is favorable”,[6] which is less expressive than Ginsberg’s point of view. Worse, Williams also appeared to be criticizing “Howl” and Ginsberg’s writing style in an interview of 1960: Continue Reading…

The Mystery of Allen’s Ginsberg’s “Reading Bai Juyi”

On December 5th, 1984, while laid up sick in Shanghai, Allen Ginsberg wrote one of his lesser-known masterpieces, “Reading Bai Juyi.” The poem begins by talking about Allen’s first month in China, where he had been teaching and travelling after a short visit with a delegation of American writers, and ends with a short biographical piece that copies a poem by Tang Dynasty poet, Bai Juyi.  Continue Reading…

The Intersection of Buddhism and the Beat Generation

The 1950s in America was not a period known for its religious diversity. The spiritual consumerism that we know today had yet to be established and the post-War era was defined by adherence to familial and traditional values, including a religious conformity of traditional Catholic-Protestant beliefs (Ellwood 172). The Beat writers were among the minority of spiritual seekers in America at that time who pursued alternative forms of spirituality to supplement the existential longing that they were encountering in their own lives (Edington 3). Buddhism, though far removed from the American mainstream, offered each writer a method for reconnecting to the lost sense of spiritual nourishment their traditions and culture failed to provide. Each writer pursued his own path within Buddhist philosophy, and arrived at a distinctly different place as a result of his exploration. The Beat writers contributed to the development of American Buddhism through methods of appropriation and study, resulting in a body of literary and poetic work that reflects the ways in which the writers integrated Buddhist philosophy both in their personal lives as a spiritual practice and as a stylistic element used to enhance and inform their writing.  Continue Reading…

“A Fleeting Moment in a Floating World”: The Women of the Beat Generation Through Allen Ginsberg’s Eyes

“The whole Beat scene had very little to do with the participation of women as artists themselves.

The real communication was going on between the men,

and the women were there as onlookers…

You kept you mouth shut,

and if you were intelligent and interested in

things you might pick up what you could.

It was a very masculine aesthetic.”[1]

-Joyce Johnson

 

 

Inception: Recognizing Absence

“The poignancy of the photograph comes from looking back to a fleeting moment in a floating world.”[2] Upon Allen Ginsberg’s reflection on nearly a lifetime of capturing photographs, his remark seems most fitting when considering those less visible, but equally significant writers of the Beat Generation. Gazing through Ginsberg’s lens of cultural history exposes complex narratives, both fleeting and lasting, of nonconformity, rebellion, and artistic spirit. Though it also reveals a powerful void; an absence of silence and omission. At a time when women’s independence was either limited or non-existent, such spaces enveloped female artists striving for personal freedom amid male dominated society. The women of the Beat Generation were active counterparts within this subculture, yet their lack of visual representation exposes a fissure in Ginsberg’s photography. Continue Reading…

4 Important Travel Destinations for the Beat Generation

The Beats were, in many ways, an international literary movement. Although in defining the Beat Generation, we tend to look at a core of three writers, expanding out to include others like Gregory Corso and “second generation Beats” like Diane di Prima, and they are all American. Sure, there were British artists inspired by the Beats, and India’s Hungry Generation, and all across the world youths writing poetry like Ginsberg… but in the end, the Beat Generation was an American movement. Only it wasn’t purely American: it was a bunch of Americans inspired by the outside world.  Continue Reading…

Allen Ginsberg and the FBI (and Secret Service)

In 1965 Allen Ginsberg flew to Cuba as part of a major poetry event hosted by the Casa de las Americas. He was famously booted out of the country after offending his hosts. In fact, it was never entirely clear why Ginsberg was deported. He liked to say it was for protesting the illegal detention of homosexuals, but it’s more likely that it was a political move by the government to harm the image of Casa de las Americas. In any case, Allen’s outspoken nature meant he was unlikely to get along well under a totalitarian regime like Castro’s.  Continue Reading…

Beat Generation and How They Defined the Pop Culture in the Years to Come

The Beat Generation was born out of protest against conformism and amid desperate searches for meaning and purpose. There are, perhaps, few other literary and culture movements that had as much ambiguity surrounding them. Jail time, nomad lifestyle, drugs, obscenity charges, and psychiatric institutions – all of those were indispensable parts of the cult. And yet, the Beat Generation had a significant impact on a whole number of aspects of life in the times when it was born, as well as in the years to come. It transformed the view of art, music, and literature and sent them into directions they wouldn’t have gone on their own. Their legacy is still alive and plays a significant role in the art development of today. Continue Reading…