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What was the Beat Generation?

Updated on May 2, 2011

Beat Generation is a term that became widely current in the mid-1950's in the United States to denote men and women in their teens and early twenties who affected an alienation (also referred to as disengagement and disaffiliation) from general society.

Their activities were marked by an experimental quest for new ways of living and a rejection of conventional values. Their attitudes were reflected from the beginning in poetry, and later in prose forms, the theater, and motion pictures, as well as in painting, sculpture, and other nonverbal arts.


Beat poetry exhibits a high degree of improvisation, "cut-up" effects, a juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images, and an erotic orientation.

Following in the tradition of vers libre and tending to blur the line between poetry and prose, the beat writers early acknowledged the influence of Walt Whitman, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Arthur Rimbaud, Federico Garcia Lorca, Bertolt Brecht, Pablo Neruda, and Jean Genet. They counted Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, and Henry Miller among their immediate precursors. Characteristic of beat prose was the disappearance of the "story line."

The first to achieve prominence in the poetry and prose of the beat mystique were Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. By the early 1960's, Michael McClure, Jack Spicer, and Philip Whalen were attracting an audience; by the mid-1960's the older and already influential but little read works of Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Gary Snyder were receiving recognition. In form and style, beat writings range from the oral "breath-length" line and free form improvisation to a highly controlled prosody, but nearly all beat writers followed Pound ("Make it new"), Williams ("The prosody of English does not apply to American"), and Charles Olson ("the HEAD, by way of the EAR to the SYLLABLE/ the HEART by way of the BREATH, to the LINE").

Other Fields

In the mid-1960's the beat, by way of pop art, op art, and camp, proliferated into the plastic arts and, by way of the "happening" or "total theater," into the theater. It invaded art films and music-from jazz to folk, to folk-rock, and to protest songs. In all the arts a reintegration was stressed, especially in California (North Beach in San Francisco and Venice "West" in Los Angeles), where poetry and jazz became a popular art form in coffee shops.

Beats involved themselves in the civil rights and peace movements and in campus anti-"multiversity" and free speech demonstrations. Their activities, which were regarded by some as signs of regeneration, were deplored by others under the blanket epithet "beatnik."


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