As the birthplace of Western democracy, literature, and philosophy, it is hardly surprising that Greece was of such interest to the Beats. Nearly three thousand years after Homer wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, Ancient Greek civilization provided an irresistible allure for some of the poets and writers of the Beat Generation.
William S. Burroughs
Burroughs was the first of the Beats to visit Greece, travelling to Athens in 1937 to marry a Jewish woman, Ilse Klapper, to help her get the required papers to escape the Nazis and move to America. He returned several times to visit his friend, Alan Ansen. One such visit in 1973 ended up featuring in his 1981 novel, Cities of the Red Night.
He was driven to a villa outside of Athens where he witnessed a bizarre ceremony culminating in the hanging of the Green boy. Back in Athens he was given the quarter-ounce of heroin.
Speaking of Ansen… the polyglot poet who was immortalized in On the Road and Naked Lunch visited Greece in the fifties and settled in Athens in the sixties, having previously lived an expatriate life in Tangier and Venice. He fell in love with Athens immediately and lived there for about forty years until his death in 2006.
Ansen was always a gracious host to his friends, whether in Venice or Athens, and he hosted various Beat writers at both locations.
In The Beats Abroad, Bill Morgan writes that, “Of all the Beat poets who had an interest in the classical world, none was more captivated by Greece than Gregory Corso.” Corso visited Athens in 1959, on the advice of Ansen, and helped spread the word to other Beats, including Allen Ginsberg. Although Corso never settled in Greece like Ansen, he returned often and wrote many poems about the country, including, “First Night on the Acropolis,” “Greece,” and “Some Greek Writings.” He considered classical Greek civilization to been the peak of human creation, and in Athens he could live cheaply while indulging himself in the culture and history of it all.
Interestingly, Corso almost never made it to Greece because he was afraid of being let down. In 1958, he wrote a letter saying:
Am very afraid of going to Greece because I always dream of Greece and if I see it I’ll lose the dream.
Ginsberg was the best-travelled of the Beat writers, visiting about sixty countries during his lifetime. Like Corso, he was enamored with ancient or exotic civilizations and their wisdom, and so when he travelled he sought out sites of antiquity, art galleries, and read widely on the area’s history and art. In 1961, he spent two months travelling Greece from Athens to Crete, seeing a huge variety of the country’s hidden treasures, as well as the more touristy destinations like Olympia, Hyrda, and Mt. Parnassus. He made many friends there who put him up in their houses and showed him around, but also made good use of his Hachette guidebook and texts like Mycenae: An Archaeological History and Guide that helped him seek out less commonly viewed spots.
Like his Beat contemporaries, Ginsberg was impressed by what he saw in Greece, filling his journals with vivid descriptions of the stunning landscapes, ancient buildings and caves, and even expressing his love for the genitalia on statues like Hermes of Praxiteles. He was also fond of the music: “Greek music and dancing is the loveliest outside of US blues I ever heard.”
He returned in 1993 to visit with Ansen and read to a large crowd at the Rex Theatre.
Like Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Corso, Harold Norse had lived at the Beat Hotel in Paris, but when it shut its doors in 1963, he took off for Athens. As a gay man, he was drawn to the tolerant atmosphere that drew the other Beat poets. For about three years he explored Athens and the islands. He briefly hosted Big Table editor, Irving Rosenthal, but they fell out over shared accommodations.
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This article first appeared in Beatdom #17. A little over 10 years ago—February 20, 20...