The Beat Generation

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Opinion Column

The Cold War had just ended, leaving America in a perennial state of post-war societal conformity. One group of writers and poets, the Beatniks, sought to dissolve this monotony. The Beats were the grandparents of social disruption: they stood for indulgence, absurdism, and the rejection of government and society. These ideals were reflected in their poetry. Beat poetry was infamous for its nonsensical writing and obscene ideals. Some topics included narcotics, alcohol, and homosexuality.

The Beatniks were an interpersonal group headed by poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and the occasional woman, like Diane di Prima. Most famously, Ginsberg was one of the only Beats who labeled himself as gay and wrote openly about his sexual identity. 

In fact, most of the Beats were either homosexual or bisexual, or engaged in same-sex relationships without labels. Interestingly, most of these relationships involved only those who were within that small group of poets. This was part of the culture the Beatniks created and were surrounded by: hypersexual and overtly hedonistic, and taken by hearts instead of heads. 

Near this time, small activist movements regarding sexuality were breaking out in San Francisco. Gay bars and clubs emerged, and the Beats lived symbiotically with them. Though not many of the poets claimed to be a part of any “movement,” the effects of their personalized poetry cannot be disregarded, especially those that eventually faced publication. 

The Beatniks paralleled French Bohemian culture and the Romanticism period, though more in morals than in timeline. Poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Baudelaire had previously explored these forbidden waters during their lives in France. However, the Beat movement was one of the first to emerge in America that actively denied the heterosexual, conformative society. Both of these movements encouraged liberation of the mind and revered all things worldly. “[Be] submissive to everything, open, listening,” said Kerouac, in his Belief & Technique for Modern Prose. These two eras can take a bit of credit for leading the world further into progressiveness, and for opening people’s eyes to the fact that there was more to life than a white picket fence. 

The Beatniks’ influence in major cities was preliminary to the Bohemia scene in New York, a precursor to what would later become the Gay Rights Movement. In fact, Ginsberg actually wrote Howl in Berkeley, and you can find a small museum commemorating the Beat generation in San Francisco.

Not only were their actions influential, but the Beatniks’ writing changed the way that we view poetry today. They wrote with reckless abandon and without intrinsic structure, redefining what a poem could be.