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.
How has that influenced generations of young artists since the Beats broke out of their private spheres and bared their souls to the world in the mid- to late-fifties? Of course, it has had huge ramifications upon what could be said and how it could be said. It has influenced even authors who don’t realize that the Beats opened doors for them and shaped the art of their own heroes. It has even had an influence upon a recent movement called Alt Lit.
As mentioned above, it is very difficult to actually define the Beat Generation, yet most people know that it at least stretched as far as the three well-known authors – Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Beyond that, things get hazy. As mentioned in this article, the Beats could be defined by their social group, with Allen Ginsberg as the link that pulled them all together.
Ginsberg was one of the most revered writers of the twentieth century, and largely responsible for popularizing the Beat Generation. He led a prolific career well into his old age and took pride in instigating aspects of the hippie movement as well. Ginsberg was a loyal cohort in his fellow Beats’ careers. He stimulated widespread talk about his accomplices with ease and was always more than willing to share the spotlight. Even when faced with obscenity charges for his poem “Howl” he took time to promote the work of his longtime friend, Jack Kerouac. His work would ensure the perpetuation of the Beat Generation’s spirit in later generations.
It was Ginsberg who carried Kerouac’s manuscripts to publishers and who convinced Carl Solomon to published William S. Burroughs’ first novel, Junky. Ginsberg continued to push for the publication and critical appreciation of his peers’ work throughout his entire life, even pushing to have Gary Snyder and William S. Burroughs included in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He worked tirelessly to make sure that people not only read poets like Gregory Corso, but that they truly understood the otherwise rather difficult and obscure genius behind them.
Ginsberg’s bravura piece “Howl” almost singlehandedly broke down the doors for freedom of expression in poetry. It encouraged poets to take new liberties with form and language, and to not fear openness and honesty. With lines like “who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war, who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull” he pushed poets into having more self-esteem about their ideas and to reject those who would try to diminish them. He loudly performed this piece in Beat-friendly places like San Francisco’s Six Gallery with the intention to shock and awe with its mix of humor and scorn.
You can almost directly draw a line from Allen Ginsberg to the now deceased Alt Lit movement with their writers “boosting” each other’s work without abandon and scoffing at accepted literary norms. Most mainstream writers and critics have dismissed the merits of the movement and labelled them as deficient of talent. These are the new hipsters, the new scraggly-haired, unkempt young poets.
Like the Beats, Alt Lit was more of a group of people who moved within the same circles than a kind of writing style, with Tao Lin in the Ginsberg role. Alt Lit existed as a community of writers on the internet who circulated their work on Blogger and Tumblr, who posted updates on their sex lives and drug use on Twitter, and who bared their souls to one another not in long letters, but on Gmail Chat.
Like Ginsberg, they wrote about sexuality and drugs in a matter-of-fact way. They championed each other’s work by liking and retweeting. They’d give shout-outs and “boosts” to each other, seemingly caring more about the movement than the individual. But perhaps their most glaring inheritance from Ginsberg was their treatment of poetry as a performance rather than a written form. Alt Lit’s Steve Roggenbuck is especially notorious for this with his preference for YouTube as an outlet rather than chapbooks (which he stills writes but not with as much vigor). In his YouTube videos, Roggenbuck shouts strange yet beautiful nonsense that for some reason seems to make sense in today’s context. He is known for non-sequitur poetry that often goes off on diatribes about living in the moment, and about ecological issues. Ginsberg’s use of humor to depict difficult ideas is evident in his work and many others in the Alt Lit scene.
Now that Alt Lit is dead, these Ginsbergian ideas and forms are now being spread throughout the internet in other ways. His effect on today’s literature is obvious in our ways of challenging the norms of the past and doing eccentric yet poetic things on YouTube. Now today’s counterculture literary form is forever marked by Allen Ginsberg and his raw, blithely authentic work.
It is impossible to predict literary trends and only a fool would attempt to do so, but one thing is certain – that whatever does come next will benefit from the freedoms available because of the Beats, using forms and ideas inspired by them, and in this overcrowded and noisy world, they will have to band together and promote each other’s work in order to be heard.
Hunter S. Thompson is best known for his bizarre Gonzo writing, which fused fiction and…