Visitors Center Script: Whitman and the Beats

December 3rd, 2009 § 2 comments

Whitman and the Beats

Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlowsky

Peter Orlowsky and Allen Ginsberg

The Beat Generation–poets of the 1950-60’s who rejected mainstream American culture in favor of poetic and spiritual libration.  The Beat poets experimented with drugs and alternative forms of sexuality, and developed an interest in Eastern thought and spirituality.  Among their most famous works: Howl by Allen Ginsberg, On the Road by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch.

Jack Kerouac was a proponent of stream-of-consciousness writing, a style that Ginsberg later adopted.  This can be compared to Whitman’s Specimen Days and his in-the-moment “unedited” prose of detailing Civil War events from the capitol.

Ginsberg also uses long-lines in an approach to capture the rhythm of jazz with the length of a breath–Howl and other poetry is particularly well-suited to oral recitation:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
contemplating jazz…

Howl by Allen Ginsberg

Whitman was among the first to popularize long lines of verse, which the Beats readily adopted for its poetic power and oracular quality.

Whitman and the Beats are similar in more than just style–they share many poetic themes and political beliefs.

One of these is a distaste for American materialism.  The Beats struck down mainstream culture for its materialism, embracing spontaneity and liberation over conventionality.  Whitman also criticized materialist culture, stressing an appreciation of the simpler things in life, among them, the beauty of nature and the human body.

The Beats also shared Whitman’s fascination with the sexualized male form.  Although Whitman never admitted to homosexuality, Ginsberg felt no shame with his own sexual relations with Peter Orlowsky, his life-long partner.

Whitman and the Beats were both poets that were involved with the change of the nation’s character in the face of war.  Whitman still retained a somewhat positive outlook on America throughout the Civil War, even after all the casualties that he witnessed in the hospitals.  Ginsberg and the Beat poets adopted a far more grim approach, writing about the alienation of men and women and the destruction of individuals of great character by malign societal control and conformity.

Nevertheless, both poets awoke America with their radical poetry and politics and shaped the cultural, political and literary scene for decades to come.

Jack Kerouac at a reading

Jack Kerouac at a reading

Christine’s blog, Whitman and the Equality of Women

Jessica’s blog, Whitman, Bucke and Carpenter

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