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).

To examine the suppression of women’s imagination and its effects on their sense of space, it is best to start with Elise Cowen. Isolated due to her mental illness and sexuality, her poetry speaks the loudest in terms of the plight of a woman’s body and space. Keeling asserts that ‘[i]n order to create literature that is by women, rather than about them, women must learn to inhabit their bodies and their sexuality and express these through their own language and images’ (52). Cowen’s poem ‘I Took the skin of corpses’ exemplifies her perceptions of the female body as repressive and imprisoning when defined by patriarchy. She describes taking parts of corpses to create a new body, but her attempt is futile as this new body is ‘deadly’ (‘I Took’ 51). The poem symbolises Cowen’s efforts to form a unique poetic voice within a society that confines her. She searches for inspiration outside of herself, in others, but these others are dead bodies – signifying how she cannot find originality in searching through male literary tradition; it does not serve her femininity. In this ‘seething allegory’ (Trigilio 134) of woman’s struggle for identity, Cowen fashions her poetic body through the ambisexual identification with Biblical figures Esther and Solomon, combining ‘domestic, female-coded sewing with male-coded writing and creativity’ (134). However, enlisting male-coded creativity in her new body does not serve her well: ‘The false body Cowen creates for herself stifles her true self, alienating her from herself’ (Keeling 53). Indeed, as Rich states, ‘the dutiful daughter of the fathers in us is only a hack’ (Rich, It Is 201) – women’s submission to patriarchy is merely a way to survive in its society, and can mean the loss of self. Cowen admits that this ‘deadly’ body inhibits her from becoming fully realised. She laments that even when she ‘become[s] a spirit’ she will ‘have to wait for life’ (‘I Took’ 49-50), indicating that the body she has created prevents her spirit from rising and keeps her ‘dead’ and stifled. Despite ‘attempting to take on male-ness’ in the form of literary tradition symbolised by Solomon, ‘her body still prevents her from fully living’ (Keeling 55). This irony is reflected in the poem’s rhyme scheme, where the iambic meter and regular rhyme give the poem a bounciness similar to nursery rhymes, which creates a sinister contrast to the dark subject matter. The sarcastic tone of this contrast suggests the mundanity and futileness of Cowen’s task. She is ultimately restricted by her sex and the ‘deadness inherent’ (55) in it.

Cowen’s acute awareness of how women’s bodies and minds are policed is seen in ‘Purple’ where they are described as ‘cock flesh’ (4) – flesh dominated and constructed by ‘the cock’ so that it is cast by its influence. This same idea is evoked most strongly in ‘Enough of this flabby cock’:


            Enough of this flabby cock

in my head

I’ll find the cat who’s got

my tongue

And spit it out (1-5)


Here, the phallic imagery serves as a symbol for patriarchal corruption of the female mind, for when the ‘flesh’ is ‘territorialised, the imagination follows suit’ (Trigilio 134). Cowen is uninspired by male literary tradition and and suggests she has no voice within it. The limiting ‘revisionary future’ (134) of this tradition is reflected in the flaccidness of the ‘cock’. This suggests a deadness to it, and its uselessness to her, corresponding with the implications of ‘I Took’. The ‘feminine lack’ (135) implied by her stolen tongue, recalls Freud’s Electra complex. She ‘identifies her speech with male sexual potency’ (135) suggesting her sexed lack is creativity, which also reinstates the restriction of the female sex in ‘I Took’. She will find the culprit of her silence – suggesting she will identify the conditioned parts of her mind that restrict her – and ‘spit’ them out, ‘in order to enable poetic speech’ (135). This declaration has a similar effect to Emily Dickinson’s ‘Wild Nights’, where she states she is ‘Done with the Compass -/Done with the Chart!’ (7-8), indicating she no longer needs masculine modes of exploring – a metaphor for being done with masculine tradition more generally in defining her sexual and creative truth. Likely influenced by Dickinson’s views, Cowen expresses these issues and extends her experience into poetry, and thereby ‘wreck[s] [the] partitions which contribute to her oppression’ (Keeling 53). The basis of women’s oppression is the containing of the mind through suppression of voice and experience. Thus, in articulating her perceptions of woman’s experience, Cowen breaks the limitations placed on her. However, she kept her poetry private, unwilling to publish it or perform it as other Beat women did. Its value is in its poetic enacting of bodily freedom. She does this through imaginative expression which is situational and performative in its language, as we see in ‘I wanted’. The repetition of a ‘cunt’ to ‘honour you in’ (‘I wanted…’ 3) ‘stages the sacred each time that it is uttered’ (Trigilio 136). Cowen enacts the sacredness of her body through the assertive ‘honour[ing]’ of her lover, and thus the language of the poem is ‘doing something rather than just saying something’ (136). This ‘reconceives divinity in performative rather than representational’ language (136) – she is conceiving the freedom of her body and putting it forth through poetry. As poet Eileen Myles contends, ‘[p]oetry is a consolation for the ways in which I’ve failed to be present’ (00:03:55-04:04). Whereas, Waldman and di Prima were able to publish and perform their poetry. When read on the page, their poetry may be only ‘referential speech’ (Trigilio 136), in that it describes the aspects of the feminine through ‘representational language’ (136) – metaphors, chants, and listing. Cowen, however, enacts bodily freedom in the ‘relocation of the divine in the body’ through her poetics. In essence, Cowen’s ‘doing’ (136) seemingly only occurs on the page, while di Prima and Waldman’s ‘performative incantation’ (136) is displayed through their physical performances of poetry.


Waldman’s poetry maintains the Beat desire ‘to make a poetics of body and soul organically fused to each other and to the underside of America’s mid-century prosperity and geopolitical ascendancy’ (Puchek 227). However, she extends the countercultural subjects of the male Beats’ poetry ‘into feminist and multicultural concerns’ (228) through her invocation of the feminine. She forms ‘a poetics of creation grounded in Beat desire and a corresponding urge to develop and enact a Beat feminism’ (228). Much like Cowen’s reinstatement of feminine freedom, rather than revolting against tradition, Waldman creates a feminist poetics from within the Beat philosophy and desire, with the aim of ‘destabilising war and patriarchy’ (‘Poetic…’ 00:01:13-01:18). Her performance poetry forms itself against patriarchal constraints on female expression ‘in creating temporary, autonomous zones of infrastructures for experimental and activist poet activity’ (00:01:20-01:25), where women can communicate unreservedly. Poetry is political in the sense that its power ‘in public space [is] its incantatory power’ (00:01:58-02:03) of soul speaking and thus revision of established cultural ideology. Waldman’s chants invoke women’s truths with the aim of destroying preconceived notions. Her performance of ‘Lady Tactics’ best demonstrates this. She presents all the connotations of the pronoun ‘she’ through a mantra, beginning with ‘[s]he, not to be confused with she – dog’ (‘Reading…’ 00:03:00-03:07). Then, she continues the mantra ‘not to be confused with’ while expressing all the notions conflated with the idea of ‘she’ – the social signifiers that come to mind, such as weakness and ‘pliab[ility]’, or ‘a secretary’ (00:03:20-03:53). She voices these misconceptions which itself serves as a protest against them. She states that women are ‘not to be confused with juniper’ or ‘conifer’ (00:04:14-04:27), suggesting, through these images of pine needles, a believed callous nature to women, a femme fatale figure. In confronting these myths, she destabilises them and turns them on their heads by reasserting that ‘she’ is ‘a goddess’ (00:03:54). In mantra,


It’s not an external deity that you worship or pay homage to or revere-it’s you, it’s a manifestation of your energy. She clues you into your own passion […] And then you might see how this passion could actually be liberating and help others and how you might be able to cut through discursiveness of all kinds (Lorberer).


This recalls Carl Jung’s idea of returning to the ‘authentic’ self by integrating one’s personality. Passion, as the inner driving force for wholeness of self, is realised and this insight can be passed to others through poetic expression. It is complete ‘soul speaking’, and therefore is self-sufficient as insight into female experience. It ‘cut[s] through’ all misconstrued definitions of femininity and brings the female back to her source. Waldman does this through chants that manifest pre-patriarchal femininity. She wanted to bring her poetry to life, ‘have [it] sing or rage through [her] body, transmit [it] through vocal intention’ (Waldman, 1945- 280). Physically projecting your unique experience materialises it and transmits energy within a group context. As Audre Lorde states, ‘[w]e can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared’ (Lorde, Poetry 37). Performing a poem can extend its energy and influence from yourself onto others, as Waldman explains, ‘I “get” things hearing them’ (Illuminati). She refers to Tibetan Buddhist Dharma where you have a text which can be ‘unlocked’ by a spiritual teacher who reads it to you, otherwise ‘you don’t get the complete transmission’ (Cohn). This suggests that, like a spiritual text, poetry can transmit more meaning when performed orally, as the self speaks louder through physical performance. This is particularly important in expanding women’s sense of freedom.

Poetry asserts female truth through the actualisation of internal experience. As Waldman explains in her interview with Cohn:


whatever this universe is you have created through language and words, is the reality, is the event, is the energy cycle, is the modal structure, and that is the experience […] And so experience conjures words and the words are very real and powerful and evocative. The words are events themselves (Cohn).


Voicing one’s own manifestation of the internal, brings the personal experience to the public sphere. Waldman describes her experience of performing poetry as an ‘awakening’ in the body. The revelation of one’s own truth is ‘a kind of performance, a ritualized event in time’ (Waldman, 1945- 280). She performs a sacred act in manifesting her soul into action and physical presence, similar to Cowen’s enacting of the sacred. Waldman’s performances are meditative and psychophysiological in that she confronts myths about women and destabilises them through her bodily revision of the terms. Her performance of ‘Lady Tactics’ expresses female truths through bodily performance that coincides with the distinctive rhythm of her mantra. ‘[S]he’ is said boldly as the start of the mantra, then ‘not to be confused with’ (00:03:00-03:06) quickens in pace and is sounded in the same sarcastically bouncy rhythm each time it is spoken to signify it as a repeated and tried statement in terms of women’s discrimination. This performance works as a meditative reconciliation of self, it influences your mind and energy through its repetition and rhythm. It is grounding in its meditative force which in practice serves to re-establish women to their source. Furthermore, ‘mantra’s magical efficacy […] is supposed to literally protect the mind’ (Cohn), in the sense that it fills you with self-positivity and wholeness that can actively work against the sex based discrimination that sterilises women’s sense of worth and imagination, as explored in Cowen’s poetry. di Prima’s performance poetry works similarly in its embodiment of the female psyche. Like Waldman, di Prima’s poetry lends itself to physical expression. She ‘physically materializes what she’s thinking; she signifies it with her body. In a certain way she inscribes what she’s saying, because she doesn‘t deny her drives the intractable and impassioned part they have in speaking’ (Cixous 420). Like Waldman, di Prima allows her soul self to manifest in her performance. Her impassioned force of energy and finiteness in her expression makes its mark through her physical presence; ‘she insists that the viewer/reader accept her as both female and artist’ (Keeling 30) – you cannot deny her poetry is female when it is put in front of you. Certainly, in order for women to establish public presence within the male tradition of poetry, they ‘must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes’ (Cixous 424). Beat women like di Prima and Waldman forged new spaces for female truth to be explored within the Beat Movement and subsequently wider society.


As much as the feminist movement was progressing and making spaces , it was largely white women who benefitted from this movement. African-American Beat women’s own bodily oppression is felt in Alene Lee’s recently discovered writing. Her short story Sisters describes her view of the world: ‘[t]o me, those hills were the boundaries of the world. No matter in which direction you looked they seemed to curve round enclosing you’ (Lee 11). The ‘territorialisation’ of her body has also restricted her mind so that her perspective of the landscape is one of limitation in which she feels that every direction in life is cut off to her. Lee describes the ‘pure joy’ (11) upon seeing her sister dance in a parade. Being within this public display, asserting her place, for Lee inspires a feeling of ‘what you are, pulsating like heart beats’ (11). Her sister’s physical performance influences Lee, who describes ‘the suppressed pride breaking out’ in her sister’s dance, reflecting the nature of women’s performative poetry. In voicing the experience of women of colour in American society, a space of expression is established. Audre Lorde also created space for women of colour through articulating her experience as a black lesbian. In a ‘recuperative alchemy’ she ‘performatively enact[s] the soul narrative […] of turning struggle into stylized survivorship’ (Lordi 56). Like Lee, Lorde’s displacement in society can be expressive, as she lacks and must invent a literary form that would accommodate all ‘the journeywoman pieces of [her]self’ (58). Like Cowen trying to create a poetic voice within the male tradition, Lorde and Lee form a poetics from their multi-faceted oppression. Their experience as women of colour are embodied in their writing in an enacting of ‘survivorship’, as later Chicana Beat poet Tammy Gómez states in ‘Woman and Pain’: ‘A woman who survives is a walking journal of her woes’ (Gómez). As such, the deprivations placed on these women ‘through race, gender, and sexuality, instil their claims to multiple literary, musical, and institutional homes’ which creates a poetics ‘built from many sources’ (Lordi 58). This provides insight into the multifaceted experience of alienation and therefore asserts their presence in the public sphere.


Beat women’s poetry utilised women’s truths in its subversion of societal constraints. Although Cowen was more cautious of her poetry’s reception, her work still enacted a Beat feminism in its performance of self-identified femininity. Waldman’s performance poetry extended the female truths in poetry to the public sphere through meditative expression. This necessitated and opened up a space for those who faced reverberating implications on their sexuality and race. Lorde voiced the oppression of women of colour and lesbians, her talks and readings enabled conversation about sexual and racial minorities within feminism. She established women’s poetry as a political force, in its confrontation of patriarchal ideology, influencing other women’s self-expression, and thereby creating areas of public space for women to flourish and break societal barriers. As Lorde argued: ‘Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters’ (‘The Master’s Tools’ 18).



The Beat Legacy on 21st Century activist poetry


The ‘roots of dramatic sexual revolt […] lie in the fifties’ (Breines 198) with the Beat women as forerunners. The ‘efforts to create new feminine meanings out of contradictory texts regarding attractiveness, sexuality, marriage […] began early and eventually found public expression in the feminist movement’ (198). What women in the fifties were recognising as limitations to their authenticity were not yet articulated in the public sphere. The women’s liberation movement of the sixties ‘politicised the changes young women were making under cover of the old culture. In the 1960s, women began articulating and attempting to resolve the gender contradictions of the 1950s’ (199). These tensions have changed for women today because: ‘sexism in mainstream and alternative cultures constrained and shaped [women’s] defiance into forms not easily recognisable, especially by analysts not predisposed to discover gender rebellion’ (130). Now, gender rebellion is more celebrated and publicised. The flood of female self expression that came with second wave feminism in the 60s and 70s instilled a platform in society for future activist poetry through which the female Beat aesthetic prevailed. One of the ways this has continued is through the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where Anne Waldman has worked as director. The school’s aim is to ‘challenge the notion of safe or generic works and create a space for radical exploration and experimentation’ (Creative Writing). Poets such as Hedwig Gorski attended this school and continue to practice their unique Beat aesthetic. Gorski particularly focusses on nurturing women’s voices. The school ‘was founded on the principle that the real world has to directly affect the academic world’ (Carmona 22), in order for there to be effective societal progression. As such, it ‘teach[es] students how to promote poetic activism in their own communities’ (22) through the course’s integration of all kinds of poetics ‘such as Native American, Buddhist, Spoken Word, and Chican@’[2] (23).


The Chican@ movement has been an important influence on the Beat Movement in the 21st century. Chican@’s aesthetic influence on the movement ‘has changed Beat into being more politically aware and more culturally diverse’ (23). Notable writers from the Chicana community are Lorna Dee Cervantes and Tammy Gómez, ‘who do not quite fit into prescribed categories […] and so have turned to the Beats for inspiration’ (23). Because of these writers, Chicanismo[3] has become an important part of Beat aesthetics and activism. The Chicana ‘has minority status in her own land even though she is, in part, indigenous to the Americas […] She is a woman whose life is too often characterized by poverty, racism, and sexism’ (Blea 15). Gómez’s poem ‘On Language’ shows a Chicana’s experience of assimilating into American society and the rigidities of it. In the poem she states that Chican@ are ‘Singled out for special treatment / Special therapy’ (00:00:19-00:25) to mould them into ‘American’ citizens. The suppression of all non-American culture meant ‘the ethnic roots of my familia faded and blurred’ (00:00:57-01:01) and her cultural identity minimised in white spaces ‘because if they noticed you were different, they might treat you different(00:01:12-01:17. Her poetry voices the truths of Chicanas’ experience and contributes to the formation of Chicana poets as a community. Their poetry serves as a force of protest that grows with each voice.


Every woman’s voice adds to the collective and its capacity for change. Poetry is innately valuable in this respect, and the flood of women’s spoken word poetry in the 21st century can be attributed to the Beat women’s aesthetic influences. The impact of poetry on societal change can be seen in the #MeToo movement, where the outpouring of women’s voices and artistic protest created a political dialogue. The ‘willingness to share private and sometimes painful experience can enable women to create a collective description of the world which will truly be ours’ (Rich, Of 16), and this is embodied in Deborah Alma’s #MeToo women’s poetry anthology. Alma’s compilation of poems of survivorship ‘celebrates this new language’ (Phillips, #MeToo 8) of women’s protest. While women’s value and voice has been buried and distorted throughout history, the rise of the women’s self expression means we are all contributing ‘parts of this immense half-buried mosaic in the shape of a woman’s face’ (Rich, Of 17).



[1] Slogan used within the second wave feminist movement as feminist concerns progressed to female-coded domesticity. It is considered to be popularized by Carol Hanisch’s 1970 essay of the same name.

[2] Sandra Soto explains ‘The ethnic signifiers “Chicana,” “Chicano,” and “Chicana/o” when they are used as nouns and not adjectives announce a politicized identity embraced by a man or a woman of Mexican decent who lives in the United States and who wants to forge a connection to a collective identity politics […] the nonalphabetic symbol for “at” disrupts […] our desire for a quick and certain visual register of a gendered body’ (Soto 2).

[3] The term ‘Chicanismo’ came out of the 1969 Denver Youth Conference and represents the Chican@ philosophy underpinned by cultural nationalism.


Works Cited

Primary texts:

  • Alma, Deborah. #MeToo – rallying against sexual assault and harassment: a women’s  poetry anthology. Fair Acre Press, 2018.
  • Cowen, Elise. ‘Enough of this flabby cock’. Poems and Fragments, edited by Tony Trigilio,  Ahsahta Press, 2014, p. 48.

— ‘I Took the skin of corpses’, p. 33-36

— ‘I wanted a cunt of golden pleasure’, p. 89

— ‘Purple’, p. 45

  • Dickinson, Emily. ‘Wild Nights – Wild Nights!’ Poetry Foundation.
  • Lee, Alene. Beatdom issue 6, City of Recovery Press, 2010.
  • Waldman, Anne. Fast Speaking Woman. City Lights Books, 1996.


Secondary material:

  • ‘Anne Waldman: Poetic Beginnings.’ Youtube, uploaded by, 21 August 2014,                       
  • ‘Anne Waldman – [Reading by Anne Waldman] (1976).’ Vimeo, uploaded by Western Front Archive, 2016,
  • Blea, Irene I. S. Chicanas and Latinas within a global context: women of color at the  Fourth Women’s Conference. Praeger, 1997.
  • Breines, Wini. Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties. UofChicago, 2001.
  • Calonne, David. The Spiritual Imagination of the Beats. Cambridge University Press,
  • Carmona, Christopher Richard. Keeping the Beat: The Practice of a Beat Movement. Dissertation, Texas A&M University, 2012.
  • Cixous, Hélène, Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. ’The Laugh of the Medusa’. Signs, 1, No. 4, 1976, UofChicago Press, pp. 875-893.
  • Cohn, Jim. ‘Illuminati in the Void.’ Heaven Bone, Heaven Bone Press, Issue 12, pp. 20-25.
  • Creative Writing and Poetics MFA. Creative Writing Faculty, Naropa University.            poetics/index.php.
  • di Prima, Diane. ‘Revolutionary Letter #75’. Revolutionary Letters. Last Gasp of San  Francisco, 2007. p. 103.
  • ‘Eileen Myles discusses her poem ‘And then the Weather Arrives’. YouTube, uploaded by ModPo, 19/09/2016,
  • ‘VOICES FROM TEXAS – “On Language” by Tammy Melody Gomez’. Youtube, uploaded by Tammy Gomez, 10/08/2014,
  • Gómez, Tammy. ‘Woman and Pain.’ Entre Guadalupe y Malinche: Tejanas in literature and art, edited by Inés Hernández-ávila and Norma Elia Cantú. UofTexas, 2016,  331.
  • Keeling, Megan R. “On the Margins of Cool: Women Poets of the Beat Generation”. Undergraduate Honors Theses, College of William and Mary, 2011. Paper 383.
  • Lorberer, Eric. ’An Interview with Anne Waldman’. Rain Taxi Review of Books, Vol. 3, 4.
  • Lorde, Audre. ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury.’ Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, The  Crossing Press, 2007, pp. 36–40.

— ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, pp. 110–14.

  • Lordi, Emily J. ‘Souls intact: The soul performances of Audre Lorde, Aretha Franklin, and Nina Simone’. Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Vol 26, No 1, 2016, pp. 55-71.
  • Rich, Adrienne. ‘It is the Lesbian in Us’. On Lies, Secrets, And Silence. Norton, 1995, pp.199-202.

—  Of Woman Born. Virago, 1977.

  • Trigilio, Tony. ‘Who Writes? Reading Elise Cowen‘s Poetry’. Girls who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation. Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace. Rutgers UP, 2002, pp. 119-140.
  • Puchek, Peter. ‘From Revolution to Creation: Beat Desire and Body Poetics in Anne Waldman’s Poetry’. Girls who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation. Ed. Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace. Rutgers UP, 2002, pp. 227-250.
  • Waldman, Anne. ‘Anne Waldman: 1945-,’ in Contemporary Authors Autobiography  Series. Gale Research Series, Vol. 17, 1993: 280.