Beat Poetry Guide: History and Examples of Beat Poetry

Beat Poetry Guide: History and Examples of Beat Poetry

Beat poetry is a style of free-form writing that originated in the mid-1950s and 1960s. It’s characterized by individualism.

Explore the artists of the Beat Generation who created influential works of American literature to learn about Beat poetry, in this article.

What is Beat Poetry?

beat poetry

Beat poetry is the work of Beat poets created during the Beat movement, a postwar literary community that embraced counterculture and activism. Beat poets were generally opposed to capitalist American values and elite academia.

Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Amiri Baraka, and Diane Di Prima were notable Beat Generation figures.

Other American poets who contributed to the literary movement included Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder, Bob Kaufman, Hettie Jones, Herbert Huncke, and Lucien Carr. Artists like surrealist painter Jay DeFeo and filmmaker Stan Brakhage were part of the larger Beat Movement.

The movement’s writing and activism centered on transcending America’s bourgeoise values through spiritual liberation, sexual liberation, anti-imperialism, a rejection of academic literary culture, and the de-mystification of recreational drugs.

Zen Buddhism and other aspects of Eastern religions were central to the Beats’ study and practice. For example, Gary Snyder’s move to Japan to study Buddhist practice is mentioned in Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Dharma Bums.


A Brief History of the Beat Generation

The Beat poetry movement was brief but culturally significant.

Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Hal Chase, Lucien Carr, and other writers met at Columbia University in the early 1940s. They would later become associated with a movement known for rejecting academia in favor of creating American literature that was more accessible to the working class.

From the early to late 1950s, writers associated with the Beat movement congregated in New York City’s Greenwich Village due to the low cost of living and communal culture.

On October 7, 1955, the Six Gallery Reading took place in San Francisco, California. It included performances by Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and, most notably, Allen Ginsberg, who read poetry from the first section of “Howl.”

The reading was hosted by Kenneth Rexroth. Lawrence Ferlinghetti of San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore began publishing the City Lights Pocket Poets series around this time. The following year, in 1956, he would publish Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems.

“Howl” was subjected to a famous obscenity trial in 1957, which was later dismissed, attesting to the movement’s values and potency in the public consciousness.

Other state-led suppression efforts against Beat poets continued, with the FBI arresting Amiri Baraka and Diane Di Prima on obscenity charges, which also resulted in non-indictment. The Beats’ work was heavily anti-war, and the movement is widely regarded as America’s first Cold War literary scene.

As the Beat writers’ popularity grew, artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and the Beatles were influenced by their work and values. Following Malcolm X’s assassination, Amiri Baraka expanded his organizing and activism. Diane Di Prima also assisted in organizing the Diggers as a community activist in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.

Popular media spread perception of the Beats informed by a perceived bohemian hedonism gleaned from cursory readings of Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Kerouac’s On the Road, and Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. In 1958, a columnist coined the term “beatnik” as a derogatory term for the Beats, and J. Edgar Hoover declared in 1960 that “communists, eggheads, and beatniks” were the primary enemies of the United States.

Ironically, by that time, popular perceptions of Beat poets had diverged from the original Beats’ lives. The general public saw the movement as a frivolous fad and cultural commodity, complete with themed kitsch aesthetic media, services, and coffee shops based on hippie or hipster imagery, with an overemphasis on psychedelic and drug addict associations.


4 Examples of Beat Poetry

To gain a better understanding of Beat poetry, read the following poems.

  • “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg (1956): Perhaps the most famous text of the Beat movement, Ginsberg’s “Howl” is an epic fever dream that documents American life. It uses surreal and terrifying imagery to critique American injustices.
  • Gary Snyder’s “At Tower Peak” (1956): This poem demonstrates Snyder’s commitment to Buddhism and environmental activism.
  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Wild Dreams of a New Beginning” (1988): Ferlinghetti, who was responsible for the publication of many volumes of Beat Generation writing, presents utopian visions in this poem. In 1988, this poem was published in a book of the same name.
  • Gregory Corso’s “I Am 25” (1956): Written by a young Corso, this poem documents the Beat poets’ rejection of what they saw as a stale elitist tradition of academic poetry.


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