There is nothing more American than a protest, than questioning authority and rebelling in the name of justice. As a result, every generation is rooted in rebellion, stemming from the War for Independence to the anti-war movement of the Sixties, yet there is no other generation that exudes a spirit of rebellion more than the Beat Generation. A community of outcasts, the Beats bonded over the burden of their loneliness, frustration with societal norms, and eccentricity, and each of them channeled these emotions into their work. At the forefront of this movement was Allen Ginsberg, a gay poet who protested the heteronormative views of society by making comparisons between the Beats and Ancient Greeks and using religious syntax to describe taboo concepts. Despite the apparent connectivity of the Beats, marginalization occurred within the circle of outcasts, in which women and artists of color were left in the periphery. Diane di Prima protested this injustice by publishing works about the struggles of women in a patriarchal world. Due to the oppressive constructs of society, poets like Ginsberg and di Prima protested their unjust alienation as minorities throughout their works; at the intersection between politics and spirituality, both writers allude to classical mythology and implement religious syntax to promote and address unconventional norms.
In many of his poems, Ginsberg conveys his frustration at being an outcast in society and carrying the burden of being outcasted, particularly concerning his sexuality. In “A Supermarket in California,” Ginsberg shadows Walt Whitman through a neon supermarket and upon questioning Whitman’s destination, he chastises, “(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd) / Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to / shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely” (Ginsberg 72). The deliberate use of the word ‘odyssey’ infers that Ginsberg perceives himself as a tragic hero akin to Odysseus, one that has suffered a dark and perilous journey for so long that he returns to a changed world of artificiality – symbolized by the neon supermarket- where no one remembers him, lost to time. It is also a potential criticism of America’s loss of traditional values such as love and democracy that Whitman exemplified. Ginsberg further identifies with and alludes to The Odyssey in the poem “Howl,” by bitterly lamenting,
[the loss of] loveboys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed
shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that
winks out of the womb and the one eyed shrew that does
nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman’s loom(Ginsberg 64)
The loom is a reference to Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, who was forced to choose a husband upon completion of a tapestry she wove for three years in waiting for Odysseus’ return; in deliberately personifying wives as the decrepit Fates, and by extension, his lovers as tragic heroes, Ginsberg expresses his frustration towards heteronormativity and having relationships on borrowed time. In implementing allusions to classical mythology, Ginsberg protests the marginalization of homosexuals in society and attempts to reason with older generations that perpetuate such discrimination.
In addition to classical mythology, Ginsberg incorporates religious language, distorted to characterize the taboo and unconventional, to attack mainstream culture, particularly in his poem “Howl.” Ginsberg characterizes the “best minds of [his] generation” as corrupted by madness and hysterics, as:
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to
the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley,
death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares(Ginsberg 62)
Despite being wrecked by insanity, Ginsberg illustrates these minds as holy religious figures worthy of praise in their search for the divine – generated through drug use rather than traditional prayer – as a deliberate attack against the patronization prosecuted by devout religious. Also, in personifying their suffering as ‘purgatoried,’ Ginsberg depicts these hipsters at the intersection of mortality and divinity and emphasizes the burden of grappling with this duality, which is extended to the closing lines of the poem by making a direct comparison between writers and Christ as redeemers, in which,
the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown yet putting down
here what might be left to say in time come after death,
and rose reincarnate…[delivering] an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani
saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio
with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years(Ginsberg 67)
Ginsberg deliberately includes Christ’s cry to God on the crucifix in depicting poets to convey that writing is akin to willingly sacrificing a piece of themselves to posterity under the burden of societal pressure, comparable to Christ. Such a bold and borderline sacrilegious comparison served to evoke a reaction from the religious who patronized these outcasts and challenge those oppressive social norms.
Like Ginsberg, Diane di Prima also protested social oppression throughout her work by referencing classical mythology, but from a feminist perspective, in which she challenges the misogyny of not only society, but the Beat community. di Prima protests the stereotype of women as passive or objects of desire throughout her extensive epic Loba, a counter to Ginsberg’s “Howl,” to address the struggles of women. Rather than the fragile doll meant only for reproduction, di Prima personifies women as the Loba, a mythic she-wolf she describes as a shape-shifter, taking the form of a revolving door of feminine archetypes: a woman, a she-wolf, a goddess, a warrior, a Mother; In “Some Lies about the Loba,” di Prima emphasizes the nature of women to be in a state of constant flux, that it is a lie to believe,
she is black, that she is white
that you always know who she is
when she appears…
that there is anything about her
which cannot be said…
that there is anything to say of her which is not truthdi Prima 533
Unlike what the patriarchy perpetuates, a woman is not a one-dimensional entity; she defines herself, she contains multitudes. Therefore, the she-wolf is a symbol of female empowerment where women can not only become a part of a man’s world, but fiercely rule it, changing themselves and society for the better. Di Prima further protests the female stereotype of passivity in “The Practice of Magical Evocation,” a caustic response to Gary Snyder’s “Praise for Sick Women,” where women are not merely fertile as Snyder claims, but ductile, with a “deadened nerve” capable of withstanding “stroke after stroke [of]/ …masochistic calm” (di Prima 361). In mirroring Snyder’s syntax and purposefully exaggerating it, di Prima criticizes Snyder for valuing women only for their biological function and asserts the unparalleled resilience of the female mind and body. In utilizing classic mythology, di Prima protests the misogyny of the Beat community and advocates for female empowerment.
Furthermore, di Prima implements religious language and symbols in order to redress the scales of equality for women in society and counter traditional religious views. As a subscriber to Buddhism, di Prima utilizes spiritual symbols found in nature to express the struggles of women in society. In “Brass Furnace Going Out,” she directly confronts and articulates her emotional suffering after being forced to have an abortion by her partner. Di Prima surmounts being eclipsed by the patriarchy and sheds light on her grieving process, on the anguish in seeing, “[her child’s] face dissolving in water, like wet clay / washed away, like a rotten water lily” (di Prima 364) and fervent pleas for forgiveness so “the cosmic waters do not turn from me / that I should not die of thirst” (di Prima 366). Throughout the poem, water is a symbol of rebirth, for all life evolved from the water, and this signifies the author’s wishes for the child to be reborn to a mother who will truly love them and for herself to be baptized, free from the grief that plagues her, as well as the society which rejects her. In addition, di Prima accentuates that like water, her emotions take many forms, from the torrential downpour of self-loathing, with a disdain for, “[her] goddamned belly rotten, a home for flies” (di Prima 365) to a forlorn yearning akin to the eye of the storm:
this possibility is closed to us
my house is small, my windows look out on grey courtyard
there is no view of the sea. will you come here again?di Prima 369
The simple act of even publishing a poem about abortion challenges Catholic views and the open vulnerability in recounting her multi-dimensional grieving process attempted to begin to compensate for the lack of female perspective in society.
Despite this, it can be argued that both Ginsberg and di Prima implemented allusions to classical mythology as a coping mechanism rather than criticizing society. Under the crippling weight of social oppression, Ginsberg identifies with the fated heroes of Greek tragedies and finds solace in their shared alienation to the point where this perception exacerbates his dueling mentalities of mortality and invincibility. This unhealthy coping strategy arguably leads to a god complex, as demonstrated in pronouncing writers to be Christ-like saviors of the world. Furthermore, adrift in a world where women are without a voice, di Prima immerses herself within the world among female mythological personas as an escape from the oppressive regime of the patriarchy, to have a taste of liberation and authority. Taking this into account, as well as the duality of freedom and self-imprisonment which plagued the Beats, it can be argued that the authors’ allusions to mythology served as both means of protest against society and of catharsis to stimulate emotional healing. Although this is a valid conclusion, the implementation of classic mythology by Ginsberg and di Prima can further serve as a deliberate retaliation against the older generation which persecuted them, in that both authors use the education and philosophies of their perpetrators against them. Therefore, in the final analysis, it can be argued that allusions to mythology primarily served as a means of protest against societal norms, as opposed to a coping mechanism.
A shared bond over the burden of being oppressed and scrutinized, paralleled by liberation in redefining themselves and dancing along the precipice of mortality and immortality, pulsed through the very heart of the Beat Movement, perpetuated by Allen Ginsberg and Diane di Prima. Both writers attempted to challenge the heteronormative and misogynistic norms of society in order to promote diversity for members of the LGBTQ+ community and for women, specifically through the application of allusions to mythology and distorting religious language to describe the unconventional. Within the hurried ramblings in Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the hurricane of emotions within di Prima’s Loba, is a shared doggedness cemented in the belief that one day they will be understood, that their ideas will forge a lasting legacy that will outlive their mortal lives, and that equality shall be achieved, eventually – a sentiment so fixed in their spirit it has its own rhythm, its own heartbeat.
"In those days I was writing a Joyce-like novel in which I was the Dedalus; and called mys...
This Sunday, April 20th, Naropa University - which was founded by Tungpa Rinpoche and was ...
On December 5th, 1984, while laid up sick in Shanghai, Allen Ginsberg wrote one of his les...
It should have been one of the most enduring countercultural unions of the century: Alex...
The 1960s are associated with what Frank calls ‘the big change, the birthplace of our own ...
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15: the WAR issue. By Pat Thomas &n...