The Beat movement is a literary and social movement, which came about in the 1950s, at the end of the Second World War. The movement centred on a group of writers who isolated themselves from social conventions in a bid to gain freedom in their artistic expression and their lives. The Beat writer s incorporated various elements of jazz, religion, art, literature, and philosophy, into their works in order to create and prophesise a new vision for society.
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They were one of the first literary groups to focus intently on the corruption of society and move to dethatch themselves from the restrictions of traditional prose. This enabled them to become aware of the beauty of creativity and the individual and embrace freedom and spontaneity in their expression. The main writers of the Beat movement were Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, whom not only invented an innovative style of literature, but also encouraged people to become more aware of the social constrictions of the 1950s through their literary works.
Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) is frequently regarded as the poet laureate of the Beat movement. Howl , written in 1955, has been subject to both praise and criticism as a one of the main works that shaped the Beat generation . Howl was first performed by Ginsberg at a poetry reading event at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in October 1955. Several well-known East-coast writers attended the event, as well as Kerouac who is said to have beat a wine jug and shout Go! after each line of Ginsberg s Howl recital. Ginsberg s passionate and unreserved reading of the poem left Ginsberg and other in tears. The poem was accepted as one that broke the boundaries of tradition form and it led to Ginsberg becoming established as an important voice in the Beat movement. A year later, in October 1956, the poem was published within Howl and Other Poems by City Lights Books. It then became the focus of an obscenity trail against its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which highlighted San Francisco as the leader of a revolution against the censorship of literary publishing in America and ensured Howl and Other Poems wide readership.
Jazz was a very important to Ginsberg and Kerouac as it was the quintessence of their lifestyle in the mid-1940s and early 1950s when they used to frequent jazz clubs in Harlem to hear their favourite jazz musicians, such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Ginsberg s poetic style was inspired by poets such as Whitman, Blake, and Rimbaud but also the rhythmic technique of bebop jazz. The word beat can be clearly associated with the poem Howl from a musical context due to the major influence of jazz on the Beat writers and a key element to their form of expression.
During the early and mid-twentieth century, the dominated white middle class saw jazz, an African-American style of music, as unacceptable and seedy. However, the Beat writers were able to identify with the African-American community as they too were outcast from respectable society. In Howl , a bleak observation of modern American society is made by Ginsberg, through his highlighting of the hardship of those oppressed by society, such as the Negroes and the hipsters . The music of these minor communities is jazz, a music form which Ginsberg reveres, which can be seen when he refers to: the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death, and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz (67, 34).
Jazz has also influenced Howl in relation to the rhythm and beat. In a bid to reject traditional form poetry, Ginsberg experimented with a method comparable to Kerouac s spontaneous stream of consciousness writing style, which was based on jazz. In writing Howl , Ginsberg used a poetic writing style which was intended to flow to a syncopated beat similar to jazz, enabling the lines of the poem to be read aloud at a shifting and improvisational tempo. The verses of the poem are therefore free form, comprising of long lines and a rhythm to match the natural breath. Ginsberg described his poem Howl to be, a jazz mass, I mean conception of rhythm not derives from jazz directly but if you listen to jazz you get the idea ().
The social context of the word beat in relation to Howl is significant as regards our understanding of Ginsberg s message in the poem. Sometimes likened to the Lost Generation of the 1920s, the Beat generation was both a literary movement and a wider cultural frame of mind. The Beat writer s rejected the ideas of conformity and normality of their time and instead displayed openness to the experiences that were available outside of the confines of white middle class America. The Beat generation were rebelling against a dominant society which was desperately encouraging planned order as a reaction to the ending of WWII. The Beats strived for a deeply intellectual, spontaneous, chaotic, Dionysian way of life in order to break free of these social constraints.
Howl is Ginsberg s social and political criticism of what he saw in the America of his time. The poem both addresses and discusses an audience of comprised of the minor social communities who suffer and fall to madness in dealing with and breaking free of the constraints opposed upon them by a post-war era of American society.
Part I of the poem, depicts the desperation experienced by those who felt alienated due to mechanisation and the conformity with which they felt American post-WWII society demanded. The poem communicates a universal yearning to escape from confinement and oppression. Part II of Howl sets out to discover and label the sources of human misery and unhappiness. In utilising the character of Moloch, a Middle Eastern god to whom children were sacrificed by megalomaniac leaders, Ginsberg personifies the causes of social disharmony, which include materialism, government bureaucracy, conformity, and technology. Moloch essentially represents the facets of modern society which demand the costly sacrifice of individual freedom and artistic expression.
The third section of Howl , entitled Part III , attempts to weigh the destruction and misery of the previous two sections by means of a personal homage to Carl Solomon, a friend of Ginsberg s. Although Ginsberg stands firm in his belief that certain aspects of American society are to blame for damaging the spirit of a generation, he also expresses an desire to reconcile with his country, which is clearly demonstrated in the line, we hug and kiss the United States under out bedsheets the United States that coughs all night and won t let us sleep ().
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In the Footnote to Howl , Ginsberg envisions a future of wholeness and integrity through the merging of both society and the individual. It is important to note that the Beat generation did not reject America, but protested against certain aspects of the society which they deemed as oppressive. In Howl , Ginsberg puts forward the idea of a different society, one which includes homosexuality, Negroes , jazz, and drugs as acceptable features of society.
The word beat also has a spiritual, beatific significance to the poem Howl , along with the other works of the Beat writers. In Kerouac s article The Origins of the beat Generation , he states that [t]he word “beat” originally meant poor, down and out, deadbeat, on the bum, sad, sleeping in subways, a term he first heard from Herbert Huncke, but the term then became extended to include a spiritual association, a certain new gesture, or attitude, which I can only describe as a new more (Kerouac 61-62).
The poem Howl not only protests against the crippling effect of the social conformity on soul s of the nation, but it is also a tribute to the sanctity of everything regarding the human body and psyche. This spiritual aspect to the beat is present in the previous three parts of the poem. In Howl , Ginsberg describes the best minds (including Carl Solomon and Neal Cassady) as angelheaded hipsters, and therefore providing these societal minorities with a sacredness which is set part from what the dominant society would consider as sacred or holy.
In the first two lines of the Footnote to Howl , the word holy is used fifteen times in quick succession, much like a religious chant. Ginsberg uses this device to disrupt the audience from their environment, making them open to understanding the new environment of holiness which he proposes. Ginsberg then begins to identify what he sees as sacred, The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The/tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy! (Howl ). He continues to list jazz as one of these holy things, along with sacred cities such as New York, San Francisco, Paris, Seattle, and Tangiers, which serve as locations that permit the madness of the best minds to create and exist freely.
The poem ends on a note of salvation for the human souls which have suffered due to societal oppression and conformity. Ginsberg prophesises that it is through their suffering and intelligent kindness of the soul (Howl 33) that they are made truly holy: Holy forgiveness! Mercy! Charity! Faith! Holy! Ours! Bodies! Suffering! Mag-/nanimity! (Howl 31-32).
In conclusion, this examination of Howl and its relationship with the beat , in musical, social, and beatific terms, highlights the poem s ultimate importance to the history of American literature and society. The Beat writers proposed a society, a world, which harboured a new attitude. Collectively, they provided people with an awareness and method to free themselves of an unimaginative, suppressed society by exploring their intellect and experiencing a life worth living. Ginsberg s Howl paved the way for an improved existence of freedom from sexual and creative repression by outlining the struggle Beat generation towards the beatific.
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