This is a track from iconic beat poet and novelist Jack Kerouac and entertainer Steve Allen’s spoken word album Poetry for a Beat Generation released in 1959. Allen plays piano while Kerouac reads his own work.
“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…”
Poet and “Founding Father of the Beat Generation” Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was born in Newark, New Jersey and attended Columbia University (getting suspended at one point and joining the Merchant Marines). While in New York, he met Jack Kerouac and William S Burroughs, and the three of them formed the core of the Beat movement. He was arrested after driving a car full of stolen good and plea bargained his way into a stay at Columbia Psychiatric Institute. There he met Carl Solomon to whom he would later dedicate Howl. He travelled the United States and Mexico. Some of these adventures are chronicled in ON THE ROAD and are attributed to the character Carlo Marx. In 1955 Ginsberg read a part of “Howl” in San Francisco and the poem caught the eye of publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In 1956, HOWL AND OTHER POEMS was published, sparking an obscenity trial that Ginsberg ultimately won. This poem catapulted him into literary celebrity. Ginsberg wrote and travelled extensively (often with his longtime partner Peter Orlovsky) over the next several decades and was politically active on a variety of topics. He also converted to Buddhism. He died from liver cancer at the age of 70.
PBS American Masters: Allen Ginsberg http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/ginsberg_a.html#
Allen Ginsberg.org http://www.allenginsberg.org/index.php?page=lifeline
Wilborn Hampton “Ginsberg, Master Poet of the Beat Generation, Dies at 70.” NYT http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0603.html
Rolling Stone calls Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002) a “Greenwich Village folk-blues-jazz institution.” He has recently had a resurgence in popularity as the inspiration for the title character of the Coen Brothers’ INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. This song, “St. James Infirmary” was originally on his 1959 album GAMBLER’S BLUES. Here is a 1997 performance of the song by Ronk, recently released in the 2013 retrospective album DOWN IN WASHINGTON SQUARE.
David Browne “Meet the Folk Singer who Inspired ‘Inside Llewyn Davis.” Rolling Stone 2013 http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/meet-the-folk-singer-who-inspired-inside-llewyn-davis-20131202
Jack Kerouac described Beat poet Gregory Corso “a tough young kid from the Lower East Side who rose like an angel over the roof tops and sang Italian song as sweet as Caruso and Sinatra, but in words.” After a series of pretty crimes Corso was arrested for breaking into a shop and sent to Clinton State Prison. It was during this time that Corso began writing poetry. Shortly after being released from prison, he met Allen Ginsberg in a Greenwich Village bar and began a friendship first with Ginsberg, and eventually with Kerouac and Burroughs as well. He wrote from 1955 to 1996 and passed away in 2001 at the age of 70.
“Bomb” (read here by the author*) is his most famous poem and the title of his 1958 book of poetry. When printed correctly, the words of the poem take the shape of a mushroom cloud.
*Make sure to listen all the way to the end for his commentary on his own performance.
“Gregory Corso” http://www.poemhunter.com/gregory-corso/biography/
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.
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.”
Here is founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti standing outside CIty Lights Bookstore in 1955.