Walt Whitman

walt whitman

Walt Whitman and the Beats lived a hundred years apart, yet they endured similar circumstances. Both Whitman and the Beatniks suffered through times of danger, and used poetry to seek out the beauty of the world. Whitman lived and wrote throughout and after the Civil War. The Beats lived through a similar time — post-WWII and amidst a very real nuclear threat. Whitman’s poetry, much like that of Kerouac and Ginsberg, faced both adoration and damnation. Whitman was once fired because his employer found out he had published the book of poetry Leaves of Grass, which he found offensive; however, the scholar M. Jimmy Killingsworth praises the very same work for overcoming moral, psychological, and political boundaries.


Though a century passed between them, Whitman is considered a major influenceono the beats in his love of nature, his search for truth and beauty, and his discontentedness with the norm. He lived a humble life away from the fame and fortune he could have earned as his literature, like Kerouac’s and Ginsberg’s, became an icon for American Literature.

~Kendall Reasons

Sources: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/126



Picture: http://www.biography.com/people/walt-whitman-9530126


William Carlos Williams

Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet and Poet Laureate of the United States William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), knew Allen Ginsberg (most likely through his father, who was also a poet) when he was a child in New Jersey. Ginsberg looked up to Williams, and when he moved to San Francisco as an adult, Williams served as a mentor to him and helped him connect with literary circles there. Williams wrote the introduction to HOWL AND OTHER POEMS:

“When he was younger, and I was younger, I used to know Allen Ginsberg, a young poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, where he, son of a well-known poet, had been born and grew up. He was physically slight of build and mentally much disturbed by the life which he had encountered about him during those first years after the first world war as it was exhibited to him in and about New York City. He was always on the point of “going away,” where it didn’t seem to matter; he disturbed me, I never thought he’d live to grow up and write a book of poems. His ability to survive, travel, and go on writing astonishes me. That he has gone on developing and perfecting his art is no less amazing to me.

Now he turns up fifteen or twenty years later with an arresting poem. Literally he has, from all the evidence, been through hell. On the way he met a man named Carl Solomon with whom he shared among the teeth and excrement of this life something that cannot be described but in the words he has used to describe it. It is a howl of defeat. Not defeat at all for he has gone through defeat as if it were an ordinary experience, a trivial experience. Everyone in this life is defeated but a man, if he be a man, is not defeated.

It is the poet, Allen Ginsberg, who has gone, in his own body, through the horrifying experiences described from life in these pages. The wonder of the thing is not that he has survived but that he, from the very depths, has found a fellow whom he can love, a love he celebrates without looking aside in these poems. Say what you will, he proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith–and the art! to persist.

It is the belief in the art of poetry that has gone hand in hand with this man into his Golgotha, from that charnel house, similar in every way, to that of the Jews in the past war. But this is in our country, our own fondest purlieus. We are blind and live our blind lives out in blindness. Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of the angels. This poet sees through and all around the horrors he partakes of in the very intimate details of his poem. He avoids nothing but experiences it to the hilt. He contains it. Claims it as his own–and, we believe, laughs at it and has the time and effrontery to love a fellow of his choice and record that love in a well-made poem.

Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.”

Here is a recording of Williams reading one of his most popular poems “This is Just to Say.”



City Lights Bookstore

City Lights Bookstore

Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin founded City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1953 and it soon became a gathering place for beat poets and intellectuals. Two years later, Ferlinghetti founded a publishing house of the same name and began publishing controversial pieces by authors’ whose works had been featured in bookstore readings. Most famously, he published Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL AND OTHER POEMS, for which he was arrested. City Lights Bookstore remains in existence to this day and celebrated its sixtieth birthday last year.

This image from Ginsberg’s personal album shows Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and other beats (including Neal Cassady–the inspiration for ON THE ROAD’s Dean Moriarty) posing outside the bookstore in 1956. The handwritten note says that Ginsberg’s longtime partner Peter Orlovsky took the picture.


A Little More on ruth weiss and “Jazz in Words”…

City Lights Bookstore turned sixty in 2013, and their celebration series featured a night about Women of the Beat Generation. In their blog, they give an excellent, brief bio of ruth weiss. Check it out below!

“Jazz innovator ruth weiss escaped Nazi Germany with her family in 1939 on the last train allowed across the Austrian border. She and her parents are the only the only members of her family to survive the Holocaust. ruth wrote her first poem at five and has not stopped since. Her work is shot through with the history of the Beat Generation and a stark and starting originality. Kerouac envied her Haiku and Poet Laureate Jack Hirschman says of ruth, ‘No American poet has remained so faithful to jazz in the construction of poetry as ruth weiss. Her poems are score to be sounded with all her riffy ellipses. Others read TO jazz or write from jazz, ruth weiss writes jazz in words.'”

Source: http://www.blogcitylights.com/2013/11/14/city-lights-at-60-women-of-the-beat-generation/


minor characters

Female beat writer and sometime girlfriend of Jack Kerouac, Joyce Johnson, wrote a book about her relationship with Kerouac and the Beat movement called MINOR CHARACTERS. Click on the image to read an excerpt from this National Book Critics’ Circle Award winning memoir.

(Johnson is the blonde woman in the background in this picture).