Beatnik Poets Revolutionize Literature and Thought in Greenwich Village

Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac as the “triumvirate” of Beat writers, united by personal friendship and mutual literary influences and together representing the Beat Generation in the mid-1940’s and 1950’s in New York City. Beat Generation writers were essentially a number of American avant-garde writers “sharing certain diverse aesthetic and social concerns in the mid twentieth century.” While the Beat Generation was more than simply a literary movement, literature was at its core, initiating the movement.  It was the works of these writers that first captured the lifestyle of the non-conformist bohemians in America and in their compelling writing captivated the attention of the country.  The Beat literary movement cohered in the 1950s and 1960s, when writers arose who shared a distrust of the so-called American virtues of progress and power.  Their writing style was a result of the use of the atomic bomb, which insured the nation’s victory in World War II.  Jack Kerouac is credited with defining the term “Beat Generation,” and in an interview explained that “Beat “ stood for being “beatific,” down and out, “characters of a special spirituality who didn’t gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall windows of our civilization.”

In 1948, Jack Kerouac created the term “Beat Generation” in a conversation with friend and fellow writer John Clellon Holmes in New York City.  Kerouac recalls that the two “were sitting around trying to think up the meaning of the Lost Generation and the subsequent Existentialism and [he] said ‘You know, this is really a Beat Generation,’ and he leapt up and said ‘That’s it, that’s right!’ ” Another literary friend, Herbert Huncke, had used the word “Beat” to describe the drifters and addicts on New York’s Times Square; other writers in their circle picked up the term.

This group of writers shared an awareness of what Ginsberg later referred to as “the phantom nature of being,” that is, the brevity and impermanence of existence.  According to Ginsberg, “Beatness [was] looking at society from the underside, beyond society’s conceptions of good and evil, which in those days [1948] of human emotion, sexuality, poetry, censorship and drugs, were medieval compared to what common judgment and opinion offers now [1981] as a standard of understanding.  Then Henry Miller’s books and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover were banned and illegal.  You couldn’t smoke marijuana without being considered a ‘dope fiend.’  These conditions produced a certain revolutionary insight into the hallucinatory nature of official government classifications and terminology.  After the horrors of World War II and the concentration camps and atomic bombs, Americans had a desire for normalcy, but we felt it was a façade.  The emphasis at the time was on materialism and conformist careers.”

Howl and Other Poems, by Ginsberg, was a stirring collection of ideas, and as such became the subject of a landmark obscenity trial.  Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was charged in 1957 with publishing “indecent writings,” and the trial centered upon use of supposedly obscene words and images in “Howl.”  J.W. Ehrlich defended Ferlinghetti, and eventually Presiding Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that Ginsberg’s poem was not obscene.  He declared that true freedom of speech and the press depended upon an individual author’s right to “express his thoughts…in his own words.”

From the time he began to write, Corso has considered poetry as the art necessary to “explain some horrors” of life to himself; therefore, he regards his career as the use of poetry’s power to transform and so redeem experience through the art and imaginative perception.  He himself viewed his work as never ending because experience is continual, fluid—and so the imagination must constantly rediscover values to keep up with new experiences.  He states, “Reality is ever changing; the poet…is ever changing.” He believed that the continual changes in awareness and truth may be followed only if a poet’s creative perceptions change with them.  For this reason, he took to publishing poems in variants and “mutations,” as he referred to them.  The true meaning of his poems, he knew, was in the continuous evolution of the imagination they recorded.

Greenwich Village, while not the birthplace of the Beat movement, emerged as a key player in conjunction with the West Coast cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco and as the centers for its development.  It was unique as an East Coast Beat-mentality pioneer town, and attracted individualist thinkers to its bohemian artist community on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  The Village has been a place for dynamic growth within an influential city since its early days as an actual “village” outside of the bustling emerging port on the tip of downtown Manhattan.  It did not, however, always welcome these dynamic influences and changes; in fact, much of the time the New Yorkers within the Village attempted to oppose them.  Yet post-1910, the Village became a rendezvous for nonconformist writers, artists, students, bohemians, and intellectuals.  A select group of like-minded anti-conformists, the Beats were generally outcasts from the bulk of society—by choice, in terms of school of thought—and were often derisively referred to as Beatniks.

It was this unrelenting, unsympathetic, judgmental society, the materialistic evils overtaking America that were perhaps even more so evident in New York City, and the individual experiences of Corso and Ginsberg that influenced their lives and led them to join the Beat thinkers.  They formed thoughts and perceptions in response to their surroundings, and they made their voices and opinions known.  It is apparent that New York City, and as their place of residence (and in Corso’s case birthplace), Greenwich Village, had a direct influence on the poets and their involvement in initiating a literary and cultural revolution that spread to the wider world.  Conversely, the actions of the poets and more broadly the Beats had lasting effects on Greenwich Village itself.  The Village today is associated with bohemians and individualists, artists and trendsetters.  In fact, much of today’s hipster movement is derived from the Beat movement.  It was thanks to the Beats that the culture of the village and America is freer from the constraints of pre-1950 society. Literature, although derisively deemed too progressive at times, can in effect be representative of the progression of a civilization. “Nobody knows whether we were catalysts or invented something, or just the froth riding on a wave of its own. We were all three, I suppose.” (Allen Ginsberg)

One thought on “Beatnik Poets Revolutionize Literature and Thought in Greenwich Village

  1. I like it!!!!
    I am reading Music Spotlight 2021. The 80th birthday of the Man himself!!! Beatnik….hmmm I thought, sounds familiar but the street wars attempted to tear at my Sensitive joyous creative self, so I googled it and found this delightful article. Fear by Blue October sent a tender and powerful message to return to thyself. Including one set apart for good reason musician Tori Amos reminds her listeners “gotta get you back to you” Reindeer King!!!!
    Please elevate the artistry and creative self….

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